Journalism: The 4th Branch of Government

Annie Donovan, 2019

Since its birth, the United States of America has prided itself on its democratic government, which promotes freedom of speech and restores authority and influence to public hands. With those ideals in mind, its founding fathers attempted to establish a system of government that spread political power evenly between three official branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. Each has a different responsibility within the government and the opportunity to check the decisions of the other. No one individual or group has complete control.

Yet, this system of “separation of powers” fails to include the group it originally set out to represent, protect, and benefit: the entirety of the American people. The elected officials and government officers are predominantly white men, a trend which has lessened considerably in recent years but continues to be traceable throughout American history.

We, especially the youth population that lacks the ability to vote for their state representatives and presidents, fail to see satisfying diversity of race, religion, gender, and sexuality in our state representatives, presidents, and congressional committees. The new GOP health bill, which determines certain abortion laws, is currently being written by 13 white men who now control the reproductive fate of poor women of color.

As a result, the races, religions, genders and sexualities, and their allies, not given a seat on Capitol Hill or in the White House exercised their own rights and used journalism and other media as an outlet for their opinions, ideas, beliefs, and stories. These reporters inform, notify, expose, and publicize for the benefit of their readership, the everyday citizen.

Journalism, throughout history, has acted as this medium, allowing information to be spread without government censorship. Women have taken to the streets, immigrants have found a voice, African Americans have spoken out against obvious injustices and political prejudice. Oppressed groups have been forced to use unconventional methods to make social change. The journalistic responsibility is to create awareness among the audience, bringing to light topics that influence their decisions, community, health, economy, and general society.

In the 19th century, a group of women created and fulfilled a niche among journalists: stunt reporting. Under pseudonyms for protection, these reporters faked illnesses, sneaked into factories, and took on demeaning work to gain insight into the social ills of urban America in a time of mistreatment and corruption. Most famously, Nellie Bly, a pseudonym for Elizabeth Cochrane, investigated the conditions of insane asylums by pretending to be mentally ill. She published her findings in her 1887 series “Ten Days in a Mad House.” Bly and her fellow bold colleagues risked their own safety to create detailed accounts of unethical conduct taken by big business and “reliable” institutions as a means to fight for the disadvantaged lower class. Winifred Sweet, under the name Annie Laurie, fainted in a crowded street to expose treatment in public hospitals. For the Chicago Tribune, Eleanor Stackhouse reported that 10-year-old boys were being held for trial at the Cook County Jail for more than a month at a time. These women, in an attempt to remove power from the political and economic elite, worked to expose crooked and fraudulent behavior, which was done at the expense of the abject poor.

During the Gilded Age, novelist Upton Sinclair wrote his famous work The Jungle about an immigrant family struggling to survive in Chicago’s meat-packing industry. Though he was determined to achieve humane conditions for workers in Packingtown, Sinclair’s writing created massive reform in the food and drug industry, resulting in the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Food and Drug Administration. He protected the health of the public by preventing further mistreatment and dishonesty from the food and drug industries. Muckraker Ida Tarbell dismantled the Standard Oil Company, which used unfair economic strategies for the benefit of small businesses previously forced into failure. Jacob Riis photographed the conditions of the poor in cities in his book How the Other Half Lives. Each of these journalists brought urban issues to the attention of government officials and encouraged political action for the benefit of their vulnerable and exposed readership while simultaneously removing the power of corrupt businessmen.

This is what happens. Big business, the elite, the white politicians ignore the requests and perspectives of other demographics. They take advantage of their lack of power and force them into the shadows, voiceless. So someone steps up. They risk themselves and their reputation to check this select group because the other three branches can’t help them. The other branches can’t help them so they made their own branch custom to their needs. Media in any form — online blogs, broadcast journalism, print newspaper, editorials, radio talk shows — offers any passionate individual the opportunity to involve themselves in the political sphere.

Comments are closed.