Balloon Boy Story Reveals Differences Between Fourth and Fifth Estates

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By Jan Leach, Asst. Professor, Kent State University
& Jeremy Gilbert, Asst. Professor, Northwestern University

Many TV viewers were already tiring of the empty, silver weather balloon by the time 6-year-old Falcon Heene infamously uttered, “We did this for a show,” raising questions about what caused the Colorado family to send officials on an hours-long chase. All the while another mystery was playing out online: The revelation of the complex and subtle differences between how the Fourth and Fifth Estates were handling the event.

Cable networks broadcast the official story provided by the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office that they believed the balloon chase was not a hoax (later revealing they deliberately misled the media to keep the family’s trust), at the same time Gawker was bidding against the National Enquirer for information a tipster claimed could disprove the Heenes’ story.

Few, if any, traditional news organizations would bid against the National Enquirer for information, but the rules are different for Gawker. On October 7, 2009 Denton e-mailed his staff a note titled “We’re not running a newspaper” and exhorted the staff:

“…there’s no way we’re going to slow our publishing schedule to that of a ponderous newspaper-style organization — where everything has to go through layers of edit and approval and checking and legal. If we did that, we’d be neither as authoritative as a newspaper nor as nimble as the smaller blogs that *do* indeed publish as soon as they get something.”

Gawker is one of thousands of Web sites in the “Fifth Estate,” an emerging collection of people and Web sites operating outside traditional newsrooms, yet doing journalism, according to Poynter Ethics Group Leader Kelly McBride. The Fifth Estate is “creating new information (and) convening conversations about important topics. They are holding government accountable and they are contributing to the marketplace of ideas,” McBride says.

This new landscape is growing even as the Fourth Estate, the traditional media and professional press, is contracting.

The Fifth Estate includes specialized Web sites, online news providers, bloggers, aggregators, commentators and much more, a virtual buffet for consumers hungry for news and information. But for all its innovation, the Fifth Estate is still heavily dependent on content generated by the Fourth Estate.

The Poynter Sense-Making Project, funded by the Ford Foundation, is an ongoing study of the influence of the Fifth Estate, described as “sense-makers who are informing much of society today.” Early findings from the Sense-Making Project show shared goals and distinct differences among Fourth and Fifth Estate practitioners and organizations. McBride says this new study provides context for citizens faced with so many news options.

McBride and colleagues, Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values, and Ellyn Angelotti, interactivity editor and adjunct faculty at Poynter, discussed the Sense-Making Project last month at the fifth annual Poynter Kent State Media Ethics Workshop.

Poynter’s Sense-Making Project examines anecdotal data to begin defining how people use, produce and consume news today. While it is not traditional scientific research, the Sense-Making Project uses three elements to gauge media function and purpose.

The three parts of the Sense-Making Project’s study are focus group-type gatherings, media case studies and town hall conversations. The Sense-Making Project began this year and is ongoing. McBride says Poynter hopes to continue the project for several years to bridge the gap between old models of journalism and new ones that are emerging.

First findings from the Sense-Making Project show that Fourth and Fifth Estate information providers have common ground (a yearning for information, for example), but their work is executed in different ways (a new “link ecology“).

Practitioners in the Fifth Estate are doing the work of journalists but they’re not always journalists. These similarities and differences contribute to the current evolution revolution in news, in that some organizations are evolving while other factors are revolutionizing news.

The Chicago Tribune, for example, embraced local blogging through ChicagoNow, a community of local blogs. Already the site has generated more than 3.4 million page views and 1 million unique visitors in September 2009.

“We wanted to provide a platform to show off all the great experts and bloggers on all things Chicago,” says Bill Adee, editor of digital media for the Tribune. “We already are way ahead of schedule with more than 100 blogs on the site.”

Even though the bloggers are paid by the Tribune Company they still operate with the same independence they had before joining the network.

“The relationship is whatever the blogger wants. For example, we don’t tell bloggers that they have to link to Chicago Tribune stories. We tell them they can link to whatever source they want, including the Sun-Times,” Adee says.

The success of Talking Points Memo illustrates similarities and differences between Fourth and Fifth Estate sites. Started as a blog about the Florida recount in 2000, TPM gained national attention when founder Josh Marshall, along with his bloggers and readers, strung together information about the firing of federal prosecutors until TPM was able to document political irregularities and was rewarded for it with one of journalism’s highest honors.

While it was at first a small venture, TalkingPointsMemo now is a full-fledged news operation with offices in New York and two bloggers in Washington, D.C. TPM now boasts 1.3 million unique visitors a month. This past summer, TPM received significant outside money from Marc Andreessen and other angel investors.

TPM is what McBride calls a “rare hybrid” example of Fourth and Fifth Estate media. “They definitely have Fifth Estate origins but they encompass Fourth Estate (traditional) sensibilities,” she says.

Opinion matters most in the Fifth Estate and that includes everybody’s opinion, McBride says. The crowd has more authority in the Fifth Estate than in Fourth Estate journalism. In Fourth Estate newsrooms there is more contact with sources than with the audience. In the Fifth Estate, there may be no newsroom and there is deep contact with the audience, McBride says.

TPM is a Fifth Estate entity with some Fourth Estate standards and “what distinguishes TPM is probably their attitude toward their audience,” McBride says.

For some other Fifth Estate Web sites, aggregation of information is sometimes more important than creating or collecting original information, according to anecdotal reports McBride has collected.

For instance, Fark.com takes a comedic approach to information but links to serious news stories and traditional journalism sites. In the Fourth Estate, collecting and dissecting information was often the purview of columnists who took information and connected the dots. In the Fifth Estate, practitioners are more likely to let people connect the dots and reframe information for others.

According to the Sense-Making research, the Fifth Estate is a viable, albeit still poorly defined, part of the media landscape. The lack of definition may be why the Fifth Estate is described as amateur or semi-professional media, according to McBride.

Ethics and values are not as clearly defined for the Fifth Estate as they are for the Fourth. The Sense-Making Project so far shows that the Fifth Estate doesn’t have the collective structure to define ethics and values as cohesively as the Fourth Estate has. McBride says the Fifth Estate hasn’t had the opportunity to evolve a fully mature system of values yet. “It’s much more diffuse” than traditional Fourth Estate journalism, she adds.

Steele said at the ethics workshop he would have the Fifth Estate embrace two values from traditional journalism: accuracy and fairness. Because the Fifth Estate places a high premium on publishing quickly, it becomes difficult for citizen consumers to make good decisions and judgments about the fairness and accuracy of content as it plays out in real time.

McBride says that the Fifth Estate, for all its aggregating and connecting, still needs original copy to use, much of which comes from the Fourth Estate. And with its curation, additional reporting and commentary, the Fifth Estate fills some of the vacuum for community specific or special-interest information as the Fourth Estate cuts back its coverage.

This symbiotic relationship appears to show both the Fourth or Fifth Estate as less independent of each other than they seem. As the reach and influence of the Fifth Estate expands it becomes ever more important to understand it and how it is used with other news sources.

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