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Adrian: Watching the Watchers

The Latin phrase Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes literally means “who will guard the guards themselves.” One contemporary rift on this maxim asks “who will watch the watchers.”

The media has long been referred to as the “fourth estate.” This term originated in pre-revolutionary France where the other three estates consisted of the clergy, the nobility and the commoners. The fourth estate is thus a societal or political force that exists outside the hierarchy and thus has the unique ability to observe on and discuss the workings of the rest of society.

In our increasingly segmented society, it’s hard to know if the media is reporting the news in a fair and balanced manner or even printing all the news that’s fit to print. Consumers are more and more inclined to stand in a media echo chamber, rather than challenge their own beliefs about the status quo. And the more we continue down this path, the more the way becomes fraught with peril.

As a society we need to unburden ourselves from the pretense that media and its base components (reporters, editors, producers, etc.) somehow have the superhuman ability to be completely unbiased and objective. Humans by nature can’t be completely objective, for as soon as we observe and take note, we have imprinted our subjective viewpoint on the object of observation. When that being observed is politically charged, the ability to remain objective nears statistical impossibility.

For centuries the media, often with good intensions, created and maintained the illusion of objectivity – until it crumbled under the glare of the 24 hour news cycle and the rise of social media. Most members of the fourth estate now feed the news cycle through social media and in so doing reveal bits and pieces of their attitudes regarding political policy and candidates. It’s not difficult for a careful or even a casual observer to discern the personal opinions of journalists and reporters.

It seems to me that the only solution to this dilemma is for the Third Estate, now the modern consumer, to be proactive about media consumption and “follow” not only those they agree with, but also those with whom they disagree and those about whom they have no strong feelings.

Turns out that in order to keep watch on the watchers of the Fourth Estate, we the people now need to spread out all along the watchtower.

Ed Adrian is an attorney at the law firm Monaghan Safar Ducham PLLC. He previously served on the Burlington City Council for five years and currently sits on the Burlington Library Commission.
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