Defining Alternative Media

What are alternative media? What are mainstream media? An extended report on a discussion in the course "Media in Southeast Asia".

In tuesday's session of the course "Media in Southeast Asia" - which in this semester focuses mostly on "alternative" media - we did the most sensible thing to do when starting a course on alternative media: we attempted to define alternative media. I'll write down the most important discussion points from today's discussion, adding some additional thoughts of mine.

Usually, when we refer to alternative media in Southeast Asian Studies, we don't have any real definition. But it's an important term: reading up on media and censorship in Malaysia is practically impossible without stumbling upon the term. In this context it's usually used to describe anything affiliated to the opposition, ranging from small-scale websites (only in recent years) to large newspapers. On the other hand, it does not usually seem to apply to news outlets affiliated with government parties even though they may publish controversial articles (See Brown 2005). On the other hand, alternative media may be used for more generally in the sense of a medium that's not under corporate control (Beers (2005) offers such a definition in regards to the linked term of "independent journalism").

From these examples alone it is visible how important a definition should be. To simplify matters, this post will work with a very narrow definition of media in the sense of news and opinion media, i.e. newspapers, blogs, radio, and television.

Alternative Media as "Not Mainstream"

Clearly, alternative media is a term to be understood in its relation to some kind of other, usually to "mainstream media". "Mainstream media", however, is just as hard to define. In the short introduction, I already provided two possible meanings of mainstream: politically mainstream in the sense of aligned with the ruling party and mainstream in the sense of being embedded in a normal or traditional (both highly congested terms, too) economic setting. Additional meters of mainstream came up during the discussion:

  1. Mainstream in the sense of following the most common narrative in dealing with their contents
  2. Mainstream in the sense of dealing with common topics
  3. Mainstream in the sense of sense of using common publishing formats
  4. Mainstream in the sense of sense gathering information from "traditional" sources

This list could probably be expanded. Its length at this point however already suggests that deciding whether or not a medium is mainstream or alternative (anything not mainstream) needs a longer consideration. Aside from very few media outlets per country, everything would be alternative. If one needs to use the term, it might thus be advisable to see different media as somewhere in between the two extremes. The more points of the list above are fulfilled, the more mainstream it is. The less, the more alternative it is.

Especially in the political sense of mainstream/alternative, it is still important to keep in mind that the term is extremely fuzzy. In terms of contents, it says barely anything. Breitbart and Democracy Now! are both alternative media in many regards. Discussing the contents thus needs further limitations of the term.

The idea of the political spectrum of left, centrist, right moved to media is a curious one. Continuing this string of thought, there would be left-wing alternative media, centrist mainstream media, and right-wing alternative media. Now, looking at political rethorics, there is often something out of the currently used spectrum. See Mao Zedong's usage of the terms right-wing for petty burgeoise in the Communist Party of China and left-wing for "adventurists". The Guomindang doesn't fit into this spectrum. The same applies with late 1920s writings about the rising NSDAP - not leftist, not centrist, not right-wing, but outside the political spectrum. If it is possible to be outside the political spectrum, it might be possible to be outside the acknowledged spectrum of media, too. This is just some thought of mine though, I still need to consider it more to find out if it really makes sense.

The Problems of Perspective and Time

"Mainstream" and "alternative" are terms only usable within a given context. One participant of the discussion - stemming from Texas - mentioned how e.g. NPR would not be seen as alternative there. It is outside the spectrum. I responded taking the position of a hypothetical passionate Trump supporter: Everything aside from Breitbart (and whatever other media they have) would be mainstream as the mainstream would be leftist.

To generalize, these examples show that when media are perceived by people from different background and from different communities, they also carry different meanings even just on a brand level.

To further complicate matters, time passes and the situation changes. Can a medium that was controversial and "alternative" at one point in time become mainstream later on, e.g. after a change in government? I would clearly argue that this is possible, but the discussion showed that this view was not as uncontroversial as I would have thought.

A Fuzzy Term

To reiterate the main point of this short post: "mainstream media" and "alternative media" are highly problematic and fuzzy terms. The discussion ended as this post does, with the question if there is a better alternative or if it is exactly this fuzziness that makes the term a good one. Probably this again depends on the context. In writing a paper, a more closely defined and narrow term may be better. But for deciding on a course topic, it may be the term's fuzziness that gives students a chance to explore the topic beyond the curriculum without straying too far off topic.

I'm confident that the course will stay interesting.