Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Democratic significance of alternative media

There is a long and continuing tradition of alternative media being produced to challenge the discourses of mainstream media. In the UK, there had been ‘a persistent tradition of small radical publications’ since the early 19th century (Royal Commission, 1977:40), even can be trace back further in the 16th (see Harcup, 2003: 357).

But what is the journalism of alternative media? How is it different from mainstream journalism? Why do they tend to emerge during the periods of heightened social tension? If the alternative media is the alteration to mainstream media, how great is the ability of alternative media to play a counter-hegemonic role in relation to mainstream media? Is there any democratic potential of alternative media in contemporary, mass-mediated societies?

While the sheer number and diversity of alternative media make developing a single, all-encompassing definition of such media difficult, scholarship on alternative media suggest how these are different from mainstream media. Most generally, alternative media could be defined as media devoted to providing representations of issues and event which oppose those offered in mainstream media and to advocating social and political reform. Some scholars divide alternative media into “oppositional” and “advocacy” media, depending on which of these goals is most central to their mission.

However, it may also be useful to conceive of these as different, but closely related, goals of alternative media. Indeed, in one of the most comprehensive overviews of alternative media to date, Downing (2001: 45) shows that such media typically perform a dual function as “counter-information institutions” and “agents of developmental power”. Similarly, Albert (1997: 2) argues that such media are characterised not only by their critiques of mainstream media, but also by the alternative values and frameworks that govern their organisation.

The commitment on the part of alternative media to providing counter-information to that offered by mainstream media and to advocating social and political reform manifests itself in their organisational structure, news coverage and, not least importantly, the relation between journalists and audiences. Exemplifying what scholars of alternative media variously refer to as a “self-managed” (Downing, 2001), or “non-hierarchical” (Atton, 2002, Albert, 1997) form of organisation, alternative news coverage is generally produced by the same people whose concerns it represents, from a position of engagement and direct participation (Traber, 1985). Alternative media aim to include people normally excluded from mainstream media coverage (Atton, 2002: 4), whether by featuring them in news or by producing content relevant to their everyday lives (Atton, 2002: 11).

One defining characteristic of alternative media is their close relationship to social movement. Downing (2001, chapter 3) shows that alternative media have served as vital conduits for the political agendas of social movements as well as helped ignite social movement through their advocacy of various disenfranchised social groups. Similarly, Atton (2003: 267) argues that alternative media privileges a journalism that is closely wedded to notions of social responsibility, replacing an ideology of ‘objectivity’ with overt advocacy and oppositional practices.
Another characteristic of alternative media –highlighting its importance- is its tendency to emerge during periods of heightened social tension. Examining the emergence of alternative press in the 1960s, Stanley Harrison (quoted in Harcup, 2003: 358) said:

From diverse backgrounds, a hundred small Davids emerged to challenge –or simply to mock- the press Goliath. Technically, this dissident press ranged from professionally produced and printed journals to roneoed sheets, and in its contents mirrored a wide range of protest movements large and small. Its unifying cause was the rejection of the media themselves.

Furthermore, observing the new arrivals of alternative press, the Royal Commission offered following explanation of the role of alternative papers:

The existence of an alternative press is important for two reasons. First, the right of minorities to publish their views without undue difficulties is at the heart of the freedom of the press. Second, one of the functions of a press in democratic society is to reflect and impart the opinions of the widest range of articulate interests. A multiplicity of alternative publications suggests dissatisfaction with an insufficiently diverse established press, and an unwillingness or inability on the part of major publications to provide space for the opinions of small minorities. On this view, the alternatives press provides at least some of the diversity lacking among stable and respectable publications. (Royal Commission, 1977:40)

This benign ‘establishment’ view of the alternative press implicitly explained that alternative press sprang up to challenge the hegemony of the established press. Because journalists in the mainstream media tend to rely upon official sources as the basis for their new stories, those in position of social and political power have considerable ability to influence what is covered in the news (McChesney, quoted in Harcup (2003: 361; also see Herman and Chomsky, 1994: 18-25). For McChesney, the result is a media system and journalistic output in which ‘consumerism, the market, class inequality, and individualism tend to be taken as natural and often benevolent, whereas political activity, civic values, and anti-market activities tend to be marginalised or denounced’ (see Harcup, 2003: 361). To explore further the role of alternative press, Harcup offer a comparative analysis of the treatment of a major ‘riot’ story by to local, northern English papers, one an established evening daily, the other a radical community publication. He finds in the ‘different cast of voices’ used by a latter consistent tendency to privilege voice from below, news source at the bottoms of news hierarchy over the traditional spokespeople taken from elite, professional group in society (see Harcup, 2003: 362-70). Such journalism not only finds common cause with its community through advocacy; its explicit connections with the public sphere of that community serve as its rationale for seeking amongst that community fro its news sources.

Given such alternative goals and practices, and given the differences to mainstream, how is one to asses the democratic significance of alternative media? One fruitful way of approaching democratic role of alternative media is to consider whether such media constitute an alternative public sphere, as theorised by Jurgen Habermas (1989). In brief, Habermas argues that the development of early modern capitalism brought into being an autonomous arena of public debate. He traces the evolution of the ‘bourgeois public sphere’ –a public space between the economy and the state in which public opinion was formed and ‘popular’ supervision of government was established- from seventeenth century to the first half of the nineteenth century. Thereafter, he argues, the public sphere came to be dominated by an expanded state and organised economic interest. A new corporatist pattern of power relations were established in which organised interests bargained which each other and with the state, while increasingly excluding the public. Therefore, there is a need of a public sphere which represents an ensemble of discursive spaces between the civil society and the state where ordinary citizens, either on their own or as representatives of larger social groupings, can debate public issues of concern to them. The debates, which ideally are unconstrained by political and economical elites, are aimed at the formation of public opinion and the shaping of governmental conduct (Habermas, 1995: 238-41; Curran, 1991: 83; Allan, 1997: 297-303).

Within this theoretical framework, alternative media can, as both Atton (2002: 35) and Downing (2001: 29) note, usefully be seen to constitute an “alternative” public sphere in explicit opposition to the “official” public sphere of mainstream media with their imitate ties to political and economical elites. Indeed, in contrast to mainstream media, which consistently have been found to exclude to voices of ordinary citizens as well as to trivialise, marginalise and at the time even demonise social movement, alternative media offer sympathetic venues for ordinary citizens’ views. In this respect, the short-lived existence of many alternative media need not necessarily be seen, as the former alternative media research group Comedia (1984: 97) suggests, as a sign of a lack of financially viable modes of operation, but rather as a manifestation of what Atton (2002: 50) call the “mutual” and “synergetic” relationship between alternative media and the alternative public sphere. Alternative media tend to flourish during periods of social and political upheaval, while languishing during periods of relative social and political calm. The mushroom of more than a hundred factory newspapers produced by shopfloor militant around the UK during the General Strike of 1926 is an example (Harcup, 2003: 358). There have been a multiplication of alternative press in the 1960s perpetuated by dissatisfaction toward an insufficiently diverse established press, and an unwillingness or inability on the part of major publications to provide space for the opinions of small minorities (Royal Commission 1977: 40 cited in Harcup, 2003:358) or the increasing popularity of alternative media (namely religious media, anti-capitalist media and student press) in Indonesia in 1990s as a reaction toward state repression (Aditjondro, 1995), for instance.

The democratic significance of alternative media resides not only in their efforts to broaden the scope of public debate by introducing topics and participants generally excluded by mainstream media, but also in the modes of discourse applied. In contract to the Habermasian ideal of rational-critical discourse, alternative media typically allow for a multitude of discourse forms “whose communicative trust”, as Downing (2001: 52) notes, “depends not only on closely argued logic but on their aesthetically conceived and concentrated force”. Similarly Atton (2002: 15) shows that one of the defining characteristics of alternative media is their experimentation with both the form and the content of coverage.

While the notion of an alternative public sphere offers a useful framework for elucidating the democratic significance of alternative media, it is also possible to think of such media as constituting a sphere of multiple alternative publics. Although alternative media, as Atton (2002: 82) notes, often operates in temporal alliances to achieve specific goals, many such media serve their interests of minute social groups whose particular concern may or may not overlap with those of other social groups. Indeed, both Atton (2002: 156) and Downing (2001: 29) invoke Fraser's (1990) widely cited notion of “subaltern counterpublics” to indicate that alternative media represent parallel, and at times overlapping, discursive spaces where participants can debate public issues of particu­lar concern to them.

Conceptualised as a sphere of multiple alternative publics, the democratic significance of alternative media also needs to be assessed in term of their external reach. Following Keane's (1995) three-part typology of “micro” (local), “meso” (regional/national) and “macro” (global) public spheres, it is useful to consider whether particular alternative media are able to reach wider, especially other alterna­tive, publics.
At one end of the spectrum are “micro” pub­lic spheres represented by alternative media like public access cable television stations. While such outlets are available to the public on a non-discriminatory basis, operate indepen­dently of the editorial control of cable station managers and offer participants opportunities to speak freely on topics of their choice, their democratic significance is compromised by a predominantly local orientation that, among other issues, manifests itself in a lack of access to people residing outside the immediate com­munity, a lack of financial support for distributing programming among different stations and a resulting lack of ties to broader spheres of public debate (Aufderheide, 1992). At the other end of the spec­trum, alternative media like the Indymedia net­work could be seen to represent a “macro” public sphere. The Indymedia network not only offers geographically dispersed participants op­portunities to debate issues and events of com­mon concern, but also offers opportunities to collaborate on activist initiatives of a global reach (Eagleton-Pierce, 2001). In between the micro public spheres of public access cable television stations and the macro public sphere of the Indymedia network are “meso” public spheres like that of the Pacifica Radio Network in US (Klein, 1999) or Radio 68H in Indonesia, which produces and distributes programming on a national scale to numerous local radio stations.

Democratic significance of alternative media cannot only be pertain by opposition from outside mainstream media, but also can be pertain by reform journalism practice from within. Mainstream media committed to the “public or “civic” journalism movement could further their democratic goals by deploy alternative media practices Atton (2002: 152). Such borrowings are most likely to occur among media sharing similar journalistic ideologies.

Although advocates and practitioners of pub­lic journalism, unlike those of alternative me­dia, attempt to reform journalistic practices from within, as opposed to from outside, main­stream media, there are significant similarities between their democratic goals. Most impor­tantly, like alternative media, news organiza­tions committed to public journalism pursue the overarching goal of increasing citizen par­ticipation in democratic processes. This is ac­complished, among other ways, by focusing attention on issues of concern to citizens; re­porting on those issues from the perspectives of citizens rather than politicians, experts and other elite actors; offering citizens opportunities to articulate and debate their opinions on is­sues; elaborating on what citizens can do to address those issues; organizing sites for citizen deliberation and action such as roundtables, community forums and local civic organisa­tions, and following up on citizen initiatives through ongoing and sustained coverage (see Merritt, 1998).

Despite these similarities, attending to certain differences could help further public journal­ism’s democratic goals. First, and perhaps most importantly, although news organisations prac­ticing public journalism have been involved in various efforts to increase citizen participation in democratic processes, they have generally refrained from promoting particular outcomes. While this position of political neutrality reflects a long-standing demand to distinguish between “doing journalism” and “doing poli­tics”, such a position ren­ders news organisations committed to public journalism, unlike alternative media, “incapable of promoting social change” (Glasser, 1999: 10). Indeed, as Glasser notes, public journalism’s apolitical stance “makes it difficult for journalists to join forces...with any part of the community associated with political or partisan interests...Unwittingly or not, then, public journalism's fear of advocacy iso­lates the press from the very centers of power that are likely to make a difference locally, regionally, nationally, and even globally” (p. 10). Thus, instead of partnering only with politically benign organizations like non-profit foundations, universities and local civic groups, news organizations practicing public journal­ism should, like alternative media, join forces with political parties, trade unions, professional associations, local reform movements and other special interest groups.

The problem with public journalism's fear of advocacy also manifests itself in the kind of mobilising information provided. While news organisations committed to public journalism, like alternative media, offer significantly more mobilising information than mainstream media more generally, there are good reasons to question the kind of mobilizing information provided. Most importantly, these news organisations typically limit themselves to encouraging citizens to par­ticipate in voluntary community interventions (Pauly, 1999: 146). This emphasis on volun­tary community intervention, however, is likely to create a false sense of participatory involve­ment which serves entrenched elite interests (Glasser, 1999: 10) and/or increases public cynicism toward government and politics, the very cynicism public journal­ism hoped to reduce if not eliminate (Iggers, 1998: 150). A more constructive approach to citizen participation would be to follow the example of alternative media and advocate measures that correspond to the nature of particular issues under investi­gation. This would require news organisations to carefully consider whether given issues can be adequately addressed through voluntary community intervention or whether they re­quire intervention of more deep-seated, sys­temic character as well as to consider whether given issues can be adequately addressed through local intervention, whether citizen-­based or systemic, or whether they require in­tervention of regional, state, national or even international scope. Relatedly, while several studies have found that news organisations practicing public jour­nalism, like alternative media, include compar­atively more citizen sources than mainstream media more generally (see Ken­namer and South, 2002), these news organisations tend to reproduce conventional divisions of labor between citizens and experts. Most importantly, citizen testi­mony is often used as a backdrop against which experts offer, in conventional top-down fashion, substantive explanations of problem causes and solutions. A more constructive approach would be to follow the example of alternative media and place citizens and experts on a more equal footing in outlining potential solutions to prob­lems.
Finally, while news organisations committed to public journalism, like alternative media, have been involved in various efforts to chal­lenge conventional, hierarchical journalist-­audience relations, such as by offering citizens opportunities to articulate and debate their par­ticular views on given issues, these news orga­nisations have retained the power of journalists to set the media agenda. As such, public jour­nalism represents a “conservative reform move­ment [in that] it speaks loudly of the public but addresses itself to a professional group without challenging that group’s authority” (Schudson, 1999: 118-19). Short of eradicating the dis­tinction between journalists and audiences’ characteristic of many alternative media, news organisations practicing public journalism could increase the agenda-setting power of citi­zens by enhancing their public accountability. This could be accomplished in practice, as Schudson (1999: 122) notes, by implementing citizen media review boards and national news councils, or require that news organisations be answerable to governmental or community bodies.

Alternative media have been dismissed as inhabiting an ‘alternative ghetto’ and as exemplifying ‘radical failure’ –failure to attract advertisers, failure to operate in a businesslike manner and failure to reach significance audiences (Harcup, 2003: 356). However, the very ‘amateurishness’ of many alternative media, such as the alternative newspaper, could also be seen as a strength rather than a weakness; a success story in terms of their socio-cultural import, their opportunities for reflexivity and their prefigurative politics of organising.
The journalism of alternative media does indeed differ from mainstream journalism. Whereas the mainstream has a tendency to privilege the powerful, alternative media set out to privilege the powerless and the marginal; to offer a perspective ‘from below’ and to say the ‘unspoken’. Alternative and mainstream not only used a different casts of sources, they even tend to have different relationship between producers and sources, with alternative media sometimes blurring the lines between the two. Alternative media, then, can be considered as inseparable from alternative public sphere(s), opening up the possibility of empowering narratives of resistance for counter-publics. Alternative media could also offer the possibility of subverting the dominant discourse by providing access to alternative voices, alternative arguments, alternative sets of ‘fact’, and alternative way of seeing, all of whose citizens may be able to use to engage critically with the output of mainstream media. In this way, alternative media can provide arenas for ‘subcultural or class-specific public spheres’ to compete with the dominant hegemonic public sphere (Habermas, 1995: 425-6). The alternative media are not just contesting physical space, but also ideological space, the space in which ideas circulate. Alternative media could also potentially inform the practices of reform-oriented news media. The technology and language may change, and project will no doubt continue to come and go, but the existence of a counter-hegemonic journalism in alternative media demonstrates, in practice that there are alternative ways of seeing the world and other stories to be told.

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