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Alternative media

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Title: Alternative media  
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Subject: Radical media, Alternative media in South Africa, Ken McCarthy, Journalism, Tactical media
Collection: Alternative Media, Journalism Genres
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Alternative media

Alternative media are media that question dominant ideas about society, raise information and viewpoints ignored by mainstream media, represent marginalized or oppressed groups, or create new communities of interest or identity.[1]

In state controlled and capitalist societies, mainstream media tend to represent the interests of the state and powerful corporations and simultaneously prohibit content that runs contrary to this status quo.[2] Alternative media seek to challenge state and commercially dominated media systems through primarily non-commercial projects that address issues and interests excluded from the mainstream, for example, those of the poor, political and ethnic minorities, labor groups, feminists, and GLBTQ identities.[3]

Though alternative media have historically been counter-hegemonic in nature (see Antonio Gramsci's theory of cultural hegemony), scholars warn against the limiting nature of a binary definition of alternative media as simply counter-mainstream.[1] Contemporary approaches to alternative media address the context and structure of these media, as well as the influence of the communities and audiences that produce and consume them.[4][5]

Alternative media take many forms, including print, radio, Internet, and street art, and historically break with the conventions of dominant media in terms of content, aesthetic, mode of production and distribution.


  • Common approaches and practices 1
    • Democratic / Public and counter-public spheres 1.1
    • Social movement media 1.2
      • Examples 1.2.1
        • Human Rights
        • Environmental movement
        • Civil Rights
    • Participatory Culture 1.3
    • Community Media 1.4
    • Race and indigenous media 1.5
    • Culture jamming 1.6
    • Aesthetics 1.7
    • Connections to subaltern studies 1.8
  • Forms of media 2
    • Press - print 2.1
    • Radio 2.2
    • Video and film 2.3
    • Internet 2.4
    • Street art 2.5
    • Performance 2.6
    • Music 2.7
      • Genres of alternative and activist new media 2.7.1
  • Aesthetics 3
    • Culture jamming 3.1
    • Cultural studies and style 3.2
    • Avant-garde 3.3
    • Political aesthetics 3.4
  • Racial and ethnic media 4
  • Audiences 5
  • Unexplored areas 6
  • See also 7
    • Alternative media scholars 7.1
  • References 8

Common approaches and practices

There are several approaches to the study of alternative media, each emphasizing the importance of different aspects of media, including the role of the public sphere, social movements, and the participation by communities that create the media. Additionally, alternative media is an umbrella term that covers many subsets of non-mainstream media. Each of these categories highlights and attempts to respond to the perceived shortcomings of dominant media, and some examples include race and indigenous media, culture jamming and alternative aesthetic media.

Democratic / Public and counter-public spheres

It is commonly acknowledged that dialogue and communication are important processes in the deliberation and making of policy in a democracy. Touraine (1994) writes that "what measures the democratic character of a society... is the intensity and depth of dialogue between personal experiences and cultures different from one another." Theorists have struggled, however, to define exactly how open communication between members of a society can be sustained.[1]

Philosopher Jürgen Habermas has asserted that the public sphere plays a key role in providing societies an arena in which citizens can meet and exchange ideas as equals. Particularly in societies where a representational or small governing class create law, a space where dialogue can take place outside of the control of the state is crucial. This public dialogue could take place in conversation or in print media. In Habermas’s conception of the public sphere, participation is open to everyone, all participants are considered equal, and any issue can be raised for rational debate. Ideally the public sphere guides government policies.[6]

However, this view of public sphere has been criticized as idealistic and for underestimating the role of social inequalities in generating exclusion from a bourgeois public sphere to women, people of color and lower classes. Further, a single sphere leaves little room for dissent or for members of subordinated groups to deliberate among themselves. Critics have argued for the importance of multiple publics, what philosopher Nancy Fraser calls “subaltern counter-publics,” in which groups can identify and discuss their own interests freely and then assert these interests in the larger public. A feminist subaltern counter-public, in which women formulate their own identity and interests, is one example. In this view, counter-public spheres specifically entail a politics that is independent from and challenges the dominant public sphere.[7]

Social movement media

Social movements are defined as a type of group action. They are large, sometimes informal, groupings of individuals or organizations which focus on specific political or social issues. In other words, they carry out, resist or undo a social change. Social movement media is how social movements use media, and often times, due to the nature of social movements, that media tends to be alternative.

Communication is vital to the success of social movements. Research shows that social movements experience significant difficulties communicating through mainstream media because the mainstream media often systematically distort, negatively cast, or ignore social movement viewpoints.[8] They may deny social movements’ access or representation at critical moments in their development, employ message frames that undermine or weaken public perceptions of a movement’s legitimacy or implicitly encourage movement actors who seek coverage to cater to the questionable values of mainstream reportage on social activism, including a heightened interest in violence, emotionality, and slogans.[8] This problematic coverage of social movements is often referred to as the protest paradigm: the idea that mass media marginalizes protest groups through their depictions of the protesters, and, by doing so, subsequently support the status quo. As a result, social movements often turn to alternative media forms and practices in order to more effectively achieve their goals.

Example of a sign used during the Occupy Wall Street movement

An example of how the mainstream media problematically covers social movements is the Occupy movement, which began with Occupy Wall Street in September 2011. The Occupy movement protests against social and economic inequality around the world, its primary goal being to make the economic and political relations in all societies less vertically hierarchical and more flatly distributed. Local groups often have different focuses, but among the movement's prime concerns deal with how large corporations and the global financial system control the world in a way that disproportionately benefits a minority, undermines democracy, and is unstable. In comparing the mainstream news coverage of the Occupy movement against coverage from alternative press several trends emerge. First, mainstream media used confusion over the event as the dominant Framing (social sciences) while alternative media focused on what the demonstrators were actually trying to accomplish. Second, the mainstream media placed the protesters at fault of any violence while the alternative media focused on the brutality of the police and their violent acts on the peaceful protesters.[9]

For more information about social movements, and alternative media, check out Social Movement Theory.


Alternative media has been a significant tool for social movements. Social movements in areas such as human rights, the environmental movement, and civil rights, have used alternative media to meet the goals of the movement and to foster advocacy, change and participation. The following a just a few examples of social movements that have used alternative media practices to achieve their goals, spread awareness, and inspire participation and support.

Human Rights
A favela in Brazil

An example of a human rights social movement using alternative media is the group favelas of Brazil, children soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, human trafficking in Brazil and the United States, and many other human rights issues, all through the use of alternative media.

Environmental movement

An example of an environment movement using alternative media is the group

Protester at a Greenpeace march in 2009

commercial whaling, genetic engineering, and anti-nuclear issues. It uses direct action, lobbying, and research to achieve its goals, as well as alternative media. They use online tactics such as podcasts and blogs[10] as well as performance art.[11]

Civil Rights

An example of a civil rights movement group using alternative media was the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), among many other accomplishments. Alternative media tactics used by SNCC included establishing a dedicated Communication Section which included a photography arm, its own printing press (which published its newsletter the Student Voice), published publicity materials, and created an alternative wire press.[12]

Participatory Culture

Participatory culture is defined as a culture in which individual citizens to do not act as consumers only, but also act as contributors or producers. Participatory culture is a space, other than the mainstream media, for civic engagement and creative expression, and it emphasizes that democratic media potentials can be realized by opening up access to media production.[13] Alternative media have frequently been studied analogous to participatory culture because both share a vision of a more democratic media structure and generally because producing alternative media requires participation in media production.

Participatory culture has been around longer than the Internet. The emergence of the Amateur Press Association in the middle of the 19th century is an example of historical participatory culture; at that time, young people were hand typing and printing their own publications. These publications were mailed throughout a network of people and resemble what are now called social networks. The evolution from zines, radio shows, group projects, and gossips to blogs, podcasts, wikis, and social networks has impacted society greatly. With web services such as WorldHeritage, Tumblr, Imgur, Reddit, Vine, and YouTube, all of which allow users the opportunity to create and upload original content, it is no wonder that culture and media production has become more participatory.

Participatory journalism is also an example of how citizens generate alternative media. Also referred to as citizen journalism, participatory journalism is defined as when public citizens play an active roles in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing, and disseminating news and information. It is also an alternative and activist form of newsgathering and reporting that functions outside mainstream media institutions, often as a response to shortcomings in the professional journalistic field, it uses similar journalistic practices but is driven not by profit making goals primarily but by different ideals and relies on alternative sources of legitimacy than tradition or mainstream journalism.

For an index of alternative news presses check out The Alternative Press Center

Participatory media approaches consider participation in producing media content as well as in making decisions about media production processes as a central defining feature of alternative media.[13] Participatory culture can be realized in a number of ways. Media literacy is a way to begin participating by understanding media systems’ conventions and means of production. Individuals learning to produce media themselves is the step that moves citizens from literacy to participation. Fan fiction, community radio or low-power FM, home videos, are but just a few ways that citizens can produce media content to participate in culture and to produce alternative media.

By fostering participation, alternative media contribute to the strengthening of a civic attitude and allow citizens to be active in one of the main spheres relevant to daily life and to put their right to communication in to practice. To demonstrate the relationship between democracy and participation in media production, the term citizen’s media illustrates that alternative media can help those who are producing media also become active citizens – particularly in a democracy.[13] This idea is tied very closely to community media (see next section).

Community Media

Community media includes citizens′ media, participatory media, activist and radical media and the broader forms of communication that local or regional specific platforms engage in. Like other forms of alternative media, community media seeks to bypass the commercialization of media. The elimination or avoidance of sole ownership or sponsorship is motivated by a desire to be free of oversight or obligation to cater to a specific agenda. Community media is often categorized as grassroots, a description that applies to both the financial structure and the process of content creation. While there is diversity in community media, which varies by media platform (radio, tv, web or print), it is typical that the media source is open to the public/community to submit material and content. This open policy aligns with the values of community media to maintain a democratic approach and ethos. Historically community media has served to provide an alternative political voice. Across the world forms of community media are used to elevate the needs and discourse of a specific space, typically connected by geographical, cultural, social, or economic similarities.

Race and indigenous media

Minority community media can be both localized and national, serving to disseminate information to a targeted demographic. They provide a platform for discussion and exchange within the minority communities as well as between the minority and the majority communities. Often times minority focused media serves an essential resource, providing their audiences with essential information, in their own language of origin, helping the specified group to participate as equal citizens of their country of residence. These media platforms and outlets create opportunity for cultural exchange and the elevation or empowerment of a disenfranchised or marginalized group, based on racial, ethnic or cultural identity. Historically, these forms of media have served dual purpose, to disseminate information to a community that is traditionally ignored or overlooked by major media outlets and as a vehicle for political protest or social reform.

Spaces created to address minority discourse typically straddle the line of both alternative and activist media, working to provide a resource unavailable through mainstream measures and to shift the universally accepted perspective or understanding of a specific group of people. Sociologist Yu Shi’s exploration of alternative media provides opposing arguments about the role of minority media to both facilitate cultural place making and hinder community assimilation and acculturation. Shi expounds a widely shared understanding that racially informed media provide place, power, and political agency.

Throughout the 20th century media spaces were developed to accommodate the growing multi-cultural state of the United States. African-Americans created local publications like the Chicago Defender to share critical information to protect citizens from discriminatory practices by police and policy-makers, while Jet and Ebony magazine served to empower the national black identity, lauding the achievements and thought leadership of black Americans. Similar practices became increasingly common for Latino/Latina and Asian groups. As immigration increased post 1965, spanish-language newspapers and television stations, along with the creation of television networks like ICN-TV specifically for Chinese immigrants. A critical awareness of an increasingly participatory global media culture in multicultural societies is becoming widespread and a necessary approach to explain the success and impact of ethnic or minority media, as well as to embrace the changing ways in which people ‘use’ their media.

Culture jamming


Connections to subaltern studies

Not much has been written about the related aims found in both alternative media discourse and subaltern studies discourse, yet a concern for disenfranchised and oppressed voices and communities can be found in both academic circles.

There are various definitions for "alternative media," as suggested above. John Downing, for example, defines "radical alternative media" as media "that express an alternative vision to hegemonic policies, priorities, and perspectives" [14] In his assessment of a variety of definitions for the term, Chris Atton notes repeatedly the importance of alternative media production originating from small-scale, counter-hegemonic groups and individuals.[15]

Subaltern studies as well has a varied history in academic thought. Growing out of South Asian studies, subaltern studies draws on Antonio Gramsci's discussion of "subaltern" groups, that is, groups of people considered to be of inferior rank socially, economically, and politically.[16] One of the most significant ideas found throughout subaltern studies is the question posed by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Can the subaltern speak?" which was posed in her seminal essay of the same name. In her piece, Spivak investigates whether the subaltern have a voice within hegemonic political discourses, and if so if their voices are being heard, allowing them to participate. This is important, as the subaltern's ability to participate in politics and other social and cultural practices is key in establishing—as well as challenging—their subaltern status.[17] This particular body of scholarship is useful to the study and discussion of alternative media due to their shared preoccupation with the ability of disenfranchised peoples to participate and contribute to mainstream hegemonic discourses, especially in regards to ethnic and racial media in which these groups speak from a subaltern position.

This connection is strengthened in the work of alternative media scholar Clemencia Rodriguez. In her discussion of citizenship, Rodriguez comments that, "Citizens have to enact their citizenship on a day-to-day basis, through their participation in everyday political practices...As citizens actively participate in actions that reshape their own identities, the identities of others, and their social environments, they produce power."[18] So it could be said that by subaltern groups creating alternative media, they are indeed expressing their citizenship, producing their power, and letting their voice be heard.

Forms of media

Press - print

The alternative press consists of printed publications that provide a different or dissident viewpoint than that provided by major mainstream and corporate newspapers, magazines, and other print media.

Factsheet Five publisher Mike Gunderloy described the alternative press as "sort of the 'grown-up' underground press. Whole Earth, the Boston Phoenix, and Mother Jones are the sorts of things that fall in this classification."[19] In contrast, Gunderloy described the underground press as "the real thing, before it gets slick, co-opted, and profitable. The underground press comes out in small quantities, is often illegible, treads on the thin ice of unmentionable subjects, and never carries ads for designer jeans."[19]

An example of alternative media is tactical media, which uses 'hit-and-run' tactics to bring attention to an emerging problem. Often tactical media attempts to expose large corporations that control sources of mainstream media.

One prominent NGO dedicated to tactical media practices and info-activism is the Tactical Technology Collective which assists human rights advocates in using technology. They have released several toolkits freely to the global community, including NGO In A Box South Asia, which assists in the setting up the framework of a self-sustaining NGO, Security-In-A-Box, a collection of software to keep data secure and safe for NGOs operating in potentially hostile political climates, and their new short form toolkit 10 Tactics, which "... provides original and artful ways for rights advocates to capture attention and communicate a cause".[20]

The logo for one of Pacifica Radio's most popular programs.


Radio has been a significant medium for alternative media makers due to its low cost, ease of use, and near ubiquity globally.[21] Alternative radio has arisen in response to capitalist and/or state-sponsored mainstream radio broadcasts. Their content ranges broadly; while some stations’ primary aims are explicitly political and radical, others namely seek to broadcast music that they believe to be excluded from mainstream radio.[22] Alternative radio often, though not always, takes the form of community radio, which is generally understood as participatory, open, non-profit, and made by and for a community.[23] These radio stations may broadcast legally, usually on LPFM, or illegally as pirate radio. While oft-cited community and alternative radio endeavors in the United States include Pacifica Radio and the Prometheus Radio Project, alternative radio is a global phenomenon.[23]

Video and film

Alternative film and video constitutes a challenge to the industrial structures and/or content of mainstream film and video. They often aspire to achieve an autonomy of resources, participation, democratization, and the transformation of society.[24] As such, it is not uncommon for alternative film and video makers to align with collective bodies. Alternative film and video vary widely in genre, content, and form, and may include but are not limited to social documentary, narrative fiction, and avant-garde experimentation.

Alternative film in the United States is evident in the work of The Film & Photo League chapters of the 1930’s, which drew attention to union and class issues through social documentary film and the editing of newsreels.[25] Though initiated in the 60's and 70's, radical video making reached an apex in the 80's as technology became more accessible. Public access television provided a broadcast outlet for oftentimes punk and hip-hop-influenced radical cultural critique.[26] The Deep Dish TV network was founded to coordinate the broadcast of alternative content on public television. Today, portable, accessible recording technology and the internet allow increasing opportunities for global participation in the production, consumption, and exchange of alternative video content.[27]


With the increasing importance attributed to digital technologies, questions have arisen about where digital media fit in the dichotomy between alternative and mainstream media. First, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other similar sites, while not necessarily created to be information media, increasingly are being used to spread news and information, potentially acting as alternative media as they allow ordinary citizens to bypass the gatekeepers of traditional, mainstream media and share the information and perspectives these citizens deem important.

Second, the Internet provides an alternative space for mobilization through the cultivation of interpersonal networks, collective action towards social change, and making information much readily accessible.Typically, among those with deviant, dissident or non-traditional views, Internet platforms allow for the creation of new, alternative communities that can provide a voice for those normally marginalized by the mainstream media.

In addition, Internet have also led to an alternative form of programming, which allows both professionals and amateurs to subvert or evade commercial and political restraints on open access to information and information technologies.[36] Some examples of alternative computing are hacking,open source software or systems, and file sharing.

Lastly, Internet also breeds a new way of creation and dissemination of knowledge —commons knowledge— that is different from the top-down manner. It seeks out and encourages the participation of multiple users, fostering forms of collaborative knowledge production and folksonmoies. WorldHeritage is an excellent example of this genre.

Street art

Often considered guerilla-art, street art operates free from the confines of the formal art world.[28] In the form of graffiti, stencil, mural, and print, street art appropriates or alters public spaces as a means of protest and social commentary. Important aspects of street art as an alternative form are its blend of aesthetics and social engagement, use of urban spaces, and interaction with the social landscape of the area in which the art is made.[29]

The street art movement gained popularity in the 1980’s as a form of art distinct from high art and commercial venues, but as popularity grew, some street artists moved from the alternative venues of the streets to gallery and museum showings.[30] Cities such as Paris, Buenos Aires, and Sao Paulo have risen to prominence in using street art as legitimate alternative media through artist collectives and competitions, bringing attention to alternative voices. The internet has also influenced street art greatly by functioning as a platform for artists and fans to share pictures of street art from around the world. Websites like and are among the most popular of street art sharing sites.[31]


Performance in the alternative sphere encompasses the use of theater, song, and performance art as a means of engaging audiences and furthering social agendas. Performance art is an avant garde art form that typically uses live performances to challenge traditional forms of visual art. It operates as “the antithesis of theatre, challenging orthodox art forms and cultural norms.”[32] Playing an important role in social and cultural movements from Dada and Surrealism to Post-Minimalism, performance art reflects the political environment of the time.[33] While performance art is relegated to high art, street theater is typically used in a grassroots fashion. It can be used as a form of guerilla theater to protest, like in the case of The Living Theatre, or through educating the public through an alternative space like in the case of CGNetSwara.[34]


Certain forms of music and performance can be categorized as alternative media. Independent music, or [35] Its subversive roots and alternative models of distribution distinguish it from the commercial record companies.

Genres of alternative and activist new media

Primarily concerned with the growing role of new media in alternative media projects, communication scholar Leah Lievrouw identifies 5 genres of contemporary new media based alternative and activist media: culture jamming, alternative computing, participatory journalism, mediated mobilization, and commons knowledge.[36]

  • Culture jamming generally attempts to critique popular culture such as entertainment, advertising, and art.[36] It tends to comment on issues of corporate capitalism and consumerism, and seeks to provide political commentary. Characteristics of culture jamming texts include the appropriation or repurposing of images, video, sound, or text and that they are ironic or satirical in some sense.[37] Today, culture jamming can come in the form of internet memes and guerrilla marketing.
  • Alternative computing deals with the material infrastructure of informational and communications technologies. It seeks to critique and reconfigure systems with the intention of subverting or evading commercial and political restraints on open access to information and information technologies.[38] Some examples of alternative computing are hacking, open source software or systems, and file sharing.
  • Participatory journalism refers to web-based sources of critical or radical news either in the form of online news services or blogs. These alternative outlets of news often adopt the philosophies of citizen journalism and view themselves as providing an alternative to mainstream news and opinion.[39] Participatory journalism projects may cover underreported groups and issues. Within this genre authors and readers of some of these alternative media projects have the ability contribute alike and therefore has the characteristic of being participatory or interactive. An example of participatory journalism is Indymedia
  • Mobilization media relate to communication practices that mobilization or organization social movements, identity, or cultural projects through the use of new media tools and platforms such as Facebook or YouTube. Characteristics of this genre include the cultivation of interpersonal networks, collective action towards social change, and making information much readily accessible.[39]
  • Commons knowledge as a genre refers to projects that provide alternatives to the traditional top-down creation and dissemination of knowledge. It seeks out and encourages the participation of multiple users, fostering forms of collaborative knowledge production and folksonmoies.[40] WorldHeritage is an excellent example of this genre.

Thinking of current forms of alternative media in terms of genre not only allow us to identify the features and conventions of certain modes of communication, but also how “they allow people to express themselves appropriately, and to achieve their various purposes or intentions.”[41] In other words, we can begin to understand how the creators and participants of alternative new media projects actively shape their communication practices.

YouTube is considered to be not only a commercial enterprise, but also a platform designed to encourage cultural participation by ordinary citizens. Although YouTube aimed to be foremost a commercial enterprise, nevertheless, it has become a community media as one of the forms of alternative media. Scholars assume that YouTube’s commercial drive may have increased the probability of participation in online video culture for a broader spectrum of participants than before. This idea allows us to shift our concern away from the false contradiction between market-driven and non-market-driven culture towards the tensions between corporate logics and unruly and emergent traits of participatory culture, and the limits of YouTube model for cross-cultural diversity and global communication. In theory, YouTube stands as a site of cosmopolitan cultural citizenship.[42] Uploading foreign soap opera episodes and dividing into several pieces to pass YouTube’s content limits, can be seen as acts of cultural citizenship similar to the media sharing practices of diverse communities identified by Cunningham and Nguyen (2000).[43] However, people who have the highest chance of encountering other cultural citizens are those who have the access to various contents, information and platforms; this is commonly referred to as the ‘participation gap.’ The notion of participation gap makes both digital literacy and digital divide such important issues for cultural politics. Therefore, it’s still controversial if YouTube is just another conduit for strengthening cultural imperialism or one of alternative media.


Focusing on the “relation between art and mass media,” [1] the role of aesthetics in alternative media can be seen as an organizing principle, inherently political and associated with more experimental and innovative modes of production.

John Downing frames art “as a form of public, political communication,” and thus as a form of media, and traces various artistic movements and practices that have either functioned as political commentary or have enhanced the realm of the political.[1] This body of literature also focuses on the balance between individualism and collectivity, in other words between the creator and the audience, within such practices, while simultaneously introducing or expanding upon the concept of audience and their potential participatory roles.[44]

Culture jamming

Within Alternative Media literature focusing aesthetics, culture jamming is framed as political action, formal strategy, and creative practice in the form of aesthetic intervention and symbolic discourse. According to Åsa Wettergren, this practice focuses on “mass media as an arena for political struggle,” which she traces back to the Situationist International collective's practice of détournement to undermine the “spectacle” of daily life. Wettergren also raises issues of access and reach by focusing on the practice's reliance on cultural and symbolic capital by way of cultural intermediaries.[45]

Cultural studies and style

The aesthetic with regards to Alternative Media also engages cultural studies literature, specifically the importance of style related to studies of subcultures. For example, focusing on counter-hegemonic cultural flows, Dick Hebdige defines subcultures as “mechanism of semantic disorder,” in which aesthetics and symbols are re-appropriated and given new meaning.[46] This body of literature also mirrors the role of transience and cooptation inherent within alternative media production.[47]


Focusing on participatory genres of art in Defining Participation: An Interdisciplinary Overview, Nico Carpentiere focuses on aesthetically experimental avant-garde movements and their emphasis on the role of the audience and participation within their conception. Some of these artistic movements include Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Situationism, Pop art, Neo-concretism, and the Theatre of the Oppressed.[44]

Political aesthetics

In his work on the politics of aesthetics, Jacques Rancière emphasizes “the distribution of the sensible,” as defining what can be perceived through the senses. According to Rancière, it follows that aesthetics are “the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience,” the affordances of the individual and the collective, as well as forming that basis of politics as experience.[48] Relating this to alternative media affords an indisputable role for aesthetics as far as expanding the realm of the political, as well as the politics and relations of power inherent within any production and its perception.

Like many makers of alternative media, scholar Crispin Sartwell identifies politics as an aesthetic environment. He argues that within such an environment “Political systems are no more centrally textual than they are centrally systems of imagery, architecture, music, styles of embodiment and movement, clothing and fibers, furnishings, and graphic arts” [49] As such, these artpolitical systems not only use aesthetics as a tool to gain power, but are also constituted via aesthetic forms within all media. Within alternative media, aesthetics are similarly recognized as a political force and often used as a tool to subvert hegemonic power structures that are perpetuated through visual rhetoric and design. Thus, it is not uncommon for alternative media to seek new artistic, non-traditional, or avant-garde means to represent its content. In this case, the use of aesthetics allows alternative media to address what might seem to be otherwise banal content in a manner which re-aligns, re-negotiates, or exposes the politics at work within it.

Racial and ethnic media

Scholars have traditionally regarded ethnic media as alternative media however some scholars and practitioners have challenged this categorization.[1] Ethnic media outlets, including ethnic newspapers, radio stations and television networks, typically target specific ethnic and racial groups instead of the general population, such as recent immigrant audience groups. In many cases, ethnic media are regarded as media that are entirely created by and for ethnic groups within their respective host countries with content in their native languages. However many ethnic media outlets are actually operated by transnational organizations or by mainstream corporations. For example, NBC Universal owns Univision, a Spanish language television network for Latinos in the United States. Additionally some ethnic media outlets obtain their content and programming from mainstream networks in sending countries. For example, Univison derives much of its popular telenovela programming from Televisa, the dominant television network in Mexico. Some argue that despite these factors, ethnic media still arguably fulfills a role as an ethnic/racial representative for their respective communities within the larger media landscape.[50][51]

There remain other issues and controversies surrounding ethnic media as alternative media. While ethnic media might provide a useful category of analysis, it can sometimes, as Shi points out, run the risk of homogenizing all members of a certain given ethnic group into a single overarching descriptive category. Power relations, differences in political views, questions of gender, inter-racial and inter-ethnic differences, and many other key issues can become erased and ignored. For example, news outlets directed towards Dominican and Puerto Rican youth expressed a desire to see more representation of their own people on networks like Univision, which typically use Mexican and Cuban figures.[52]

While ethnic media may position itself as counter to the dominant racial Al Jazeera America is similarly laid out compared to other mainstream news sites. Additionally, professionals who own and operate ethnic media outlets often come from significantly different backgrounds than their intended audience. America Rodriguez writes in Making Latino News that “Latino journalism is produced by Latino journalists and Latino marketers, Latinos whose cultural and material capital set them apart from much of their intended audience, replicating the social distance that exists between most general market journalists and their audiences.”[53]

A 2005 US survey by New California Media found that 13% of the US adult population consumes ethnic media. A total of 45% of African Americans, Hispanics, Asian American, Native American and Arab Americans preferred their targeted ethnic media over mainstream media, saying that they accessed ethnic media frequently. The survey attributes much of this trend to the limited reach of newspapers to minority populations by traditional media. Perhaps more strikingly, the study found that 90 percent of ethnic populations consumes ethnic media regularly.[54]

In 2011 the Pew Research center found that African American media not only played a valuable role for African Americans, it also faces challenges present with mainstream media. The National Newspaper Associations lists over 200 newspapers owned by blacks. While circulation of the newspapers is significantly less than mainstream newspapers, Elinor Tatum, editor in chief for the New York Times said, “Our circulation may not be the strongest, but people are reading us, and they care what we say”. African American ethnic media is also represented in wire services, magazines, radio, and online. Black newspaper publisher Danny Bakewell Sr. said, “People buy black newspapers for a very simple reason: We want to see ourselves … In terms of getting a perspective of what’s happening in the world and the epic value of the black press… We’re making sure we’re not silent. “[55]

Ethnic media that are clearly alternative media, in that it meets many of the criteria stated above, do exist. For example, the Zapatista movement of Southern Mexico, which represents mostly peasant indigenous people, produced highly sophisticated videos. These videos were distributed though conventional means but had political views outside the mainstream. Ethnic media as a category of alternative media remains controversial and thus inquiry into the intellectual framework takes into account the issues raised by many scholars and practitioners.


Although most of the attention to alternative media has focused on the politics of production and categorization of different kinds of media, there has been growing interest in the audiences of alternative media. Much of this interest originally stemmed from Chris Atton's description of the blurred line between audience and producer, which stood as a tactic for production in the "ghetto sphere." Essentially, media resources have become monopolized by corporate conglomerates, which leaves the public sphere in a permanent "ghetto" condition. In order to overcome such problems, Atton noted that producers of alternative media can rely on the audience to generate content, which comes at little or no cost. Although Atton's description of the audience in this context was a discussion about production, it did shift more attention to the people who read and use alternative media. In 2007, Jennifer Rauch [56] claimed that the interpretive strategies utilized by the audience can determine if a text is alternative or not. In 2009, Michael Boyle and Mike Schmierbach [57] demonstrated how audiences of alternative media are more likely to be more frequently engaged in protest actions than audiences of mainstream news media. Later, Joshua Atkinson [58] explored the performances of alternative media audiences, and how the use of alternative media shaped those performances. Essentially, Atkinson claims that the nature of the audiences use of alternative media (participatory v. passive), as well as their worldview, often shape the performances of resistance against dominant power structures in society.

Unexplored areas

A very interesting, though underexplored question is the issue of alternative and mainstream spaces is the idea of crossovers. While at one point scholars agreed that alternative and mainstream spaces were twains that would never meet, later scholarship is questioning the basis of such “binary oppositions” and examining, instead, the ways alternative media borrows and re-works the norms of mainstream media. Alternative media processes and products have been described as inhabiting or being “inseparable” from an “alternative or plebeian public sphere” (Atton, 1999, pp. 54, 71; 2002, pp. 35, 50; Habermas, 1989, p. xviii; 1992, p. 430). Within this context, the journalistic practices carried out within alternative media have been described, in a historical context, as ‘‘insurgent journalism’’ (Curran and Seaton, 2003, p. 16); and, in a more contemporary context, as ‘‘counter-hegemonic journalism’’ (Harcup, 2003, p. 372). Journalism practiced within alternative media has typically been understood as being entirely different to and separate from journalism practiced within mainstream media (Harcup, 2003). However, while some scholars see distinct differences between alternative and mainstream media which would suggest that they would frame issues differently, some see overlaps that would suggest that there might be similarities in the way issues are framed. Labels such as “alternative press” have tended to be used as ‘‘broad-brush collective terms for a disparate body of practices’’ (Campbell, 2004), but some common themes can be identified. Alternative media processes and products have been described as existing in opposition to mainstream media whether local, national or global and existing as “propaganda of the deed, highlighting the faults of the established press” (Whitaker, 1981). Noakes and Johnston (2005) have shown clear distinctions between framing issues for the purpose of social movement mobilization that most alternative media is associated with and how those issues are framed by potential participants in response to frames proposed by mainstream media frames (Downing, 2008). Perhaps that why mainstream and alternative media practices have been seen as disparate and uncomplimentary in nature with divided audiences. As Downing (2003) says, “There is a distinctly disturbing gulf between our currently fragmentary knowledge or debates concerning how audiences and readers use alternative media…” Yet lines between alternative and mainstream media are gradually blurring. A significant number of journalists currently working within mainstream media have previously worked in some form of alternative media (Harcup, 2003). While practitioner accounts abound, this is an area largely absent in academic research (Fountain, 1988; Harcup, 1994; Schechter, 2001; Younge, 2004). But now scholars like Atton (2003) and Downing (2001) have opened dialogue about “the complex, hybrid nature of alternative media in relation to its mainstream counterparts”. Much of alternative media works to show “other journalists how newspapers could be different and what was possible” (Whitaker, 1981). But as scholars like Atton and Couldry (2003) have shown that the practices and processes of alternative media should not be considered as “entirely separate” from those of more dominant media. Studies by Harcup (2003) have shown that the longer journalists spend working in mainstream media the more they find that the crossover between the two ‘brands’ of reporting is far greater than outsiders suspect”. Harcup (2003) has suggested that there may be some crossover of ideas, content, style, and, not least, people between what may be termed the alternative and what may be termed the mainstream; that some of the alternative media’s “hybridized voices” (Atton, 2002) may on occasions resonate within the mainstream. It has been suggested that one of the defining differences between the alternative and mainstream press is that they frequently have a different idea of what constitutes a story in the first place (Aubrey et al., 1980: 16; Franklin and Murphy, 1991: 126; Franklin, 1997). An area where mainstream and alternative media coverage of issue might find overlap is that of framing of issues. Examining a specific issue in the UK, Hall et al. (1978) have said, “that, despite the very different styles adopted by the various titles, the press produced remarkably similar ‘public images’ which together acted to foreclose discussion before it could go beyond the boundaries of the dominant ideological field.”

See also

Alternative media scholars


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