Alternative media: Alternative to what?
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Alternative media: Alternative to what?

Lorenzo Vargas

The following article reviews some of the main ways in which scholarship on community and alternative media has sought to understand itself and argues that despite disagreements around definition, these debates have translated into tangible calls for social transformation in the form of the communication rights and media reform movements.

The concept of “alternative media” begs the question “alternative to what?”. Downing characterizes alternative media as defined by a radical political, social, or cultural agenda (Downing, 1984, quoted by Couldry, 2009: 25). Atton views alternative media as an opportunity for the “other” to represent herself (Bosch, 2009: 72) and proposes a “typology” that identifies content, form, democratic distribution, and transformed social relations as defining categories (Atton, 2022 in Payne, 2002: 60).

Atton also sees alternative media as an opportunity to challenge established media practices which are seen as common sense (Atton, 2015: 2). O’Sullivan points to the collectivist method of production in alternative media content as a defining feature (Elghul-Bebawi, 2009: 24). Hamilton and Harcup prefer terms like “community” or “grassroots” media (idem: 20-21), while Rodriguez prefers “citizen’s media” because they can be pathways to more active acts of citizenship (Bosch 2009: 72).

These debates about definition also raise questions about what the term alternative media specifically refers to, since it encapsulates practices as diverse as community radio, citizen journalism, ethnic newspapers, independent podcasting, and grassroots cinema. Coyer defines it as not-for-profit, participatory, and made for and by local audiences in ways that revitalize the local in the context of the global (Coyer 2011: 168-169). Other understandings are based on the type of organizational structures in alternative media (Downing), as well as their relationship to the market economy (Atton; Williams; Elghul-Bebawi, 2009: 22).

But despite these difficulties around definitions and forms, “alternative” media capable of promoting peace, democracy, and sustainability are needed today more than ever given the climate crisis and the rise of far-right political movements (Hackett 2016: 16-17). Couldry and Rodriguez echo this call when they point out that the concentration of media and digital power in a few, often corporate, hands is undermining social progress, and that there is a need to advance a different logic of communication, rooted in radical democracy and active citizenship (Couldry and Rodriguez, 2015).

Questions of identity

One of the defining characteristics of alternative media is that it challenges hegemonic identities and creates platforms for non-dominant social identities to gain recognition. Some of these identities are held by ethnic or linguistic minorities. For instance, in her study of Africa Scene, a weekly migrant-produced show broadcast on a community radio station in Dublin, Moylan argues that producers’ identities shift because of their position as voices of a marginalized population (Moylan, 2009). Similarly, in her study on the contestation of stereotypes by Muslim girls in New York, Noor (2007) highlights the role of collective identity as a starting point for challenges to dominant narratives. Guedes Bailey argues that “diasporic” community media can be spaces where exclusion can be overcome through a process of identity negotiation (Guedes Bailey, 2015). This is especially true in contexts where “ethnic” communities do not recognize themselves in mainstream content (Deuze, 2006).

A similar example, this time focused on Indigenous identities, is the work of Pietikaiken, who examines journalistic practices inside various Sami media in Finland. He argues that collective identity is created and reproduced because Sami journalists are moved by a sense of duty in protecting Sami culture (Pietkaiken, 2008: 12-14). Magallanes-Blanco points out that, in her study of Indigenous participatory video practices in Peru, Kenya, and the Philippines, activists employ some common narratives rooted in their Indigenous identities (Magallanes Blanco, 2015). Bellotti adds that Indigenous community media reinforces “ethnic identity”, which helps advance decolonization, Indigenous governance, and organizing (Bellotti, 2020).

Indigenous community media production also plays a key role in enabling resistance in contexts marked by state repression and market forces (Myers, 2016: 101). Meadows adds that Indigenous community broadcasting can contribute to “Indigenous public spheres” in which indigenous broadcasters and audiences engage in a dialogue that permits the creation and maintenance of Indigenous identities (Meadows, 2015).

Other scholars point to the importance of alternative media in promoting social identities that advance gender justice. In their study of participatory communication projects in India, Pavarala and Malik argue that the work of women in these projects “contributes to their empowerment as women and a reconfiguration of their understanding of their rights”, leading to a shifted identity from shy and “even scared” women to women who are empowered as community reporters. (Pavarala & Kuman Malik, 2009: 96, 104).

A similar example is found in the work of Matewa, who argues that women’s participatory video production processes at a community level contribute to individual and collective empowerment, which is rooted in an identity shift towards a justice-oriented understanding of citizenship (Matewa, 2009: 117). Likewise, Vivienne and Burgess’ study of a queer digital storytelling collective in Australia point to the negotiation of the tensions between visibility and hiddenness, secrecy and pride, and the construction of new queer identities (Vivienne and Burgess, 2012: 363).

Another dimension of identity formation is that of political identities claimed in opposition to dominant discourses. Santana Lourenco examines alternative media production practices in Brazilian slums marked by social and political exclusion and argues that collaborative media production stimulates collective identity formation because “the cooperative nature of video production can be a bond that strengthens community identities” and can lead to new identities of “socially awakened citizens” with political rights (Santana Lourenco, 2007: 89-96).

Similarly, Beybinia Kejanlioglu et al. highlight the role of the media content and production in promoting political identities in opposition to mainstream’s media portrayal of social issues in Turkey. (Beybin Kejanlıoglu, et al., 2012: 292). Hayes, whose work on cultural mediation between locals, migrants, foreign donors at a community radio station in Mexico concludes that the framing used in media content reinforces rural and campesino identities, which help fuel activism and political mobilization (Hayes, 2018).

Lastly, O’Brien sheds light on structural barriers to women’s equal participation in Ireland’s community radio movement, which ultimately create momentum for gender justice-oriented change as women identify these barriers and develop political identities of resistance (O’Brien, 2019). Payne’s thinking moves in the same direction by advancing that “mediated representations of “interest groups” such as women’s organizations are seen as a constitutive practice because they mobilize feminist identities to be produced by feminist media production (Payne, 2012: 66).

Citizenship, participation, and voice

Another useful framework is that of “citizens’ media”, presented by Rodriguez. She argues that alternative media function as a site for the reconfiguration of civic identities through the performance of these identities in media production (Rodriguez, 2011: 82). Citizen’s media allow people to perform everyday local identities and ways of life that have not been permeated by anti-democratic logics (ibid).

As such, Rodriguez defines citizens’ media as spaces where people can learn to manipulate their own languages, codes, signs, and symbols, empowering them to name the world on their own terms (Rodriguez, 2011: 24). She points out that the impact of alternative, community, or citizen’s media projects includes the reappropriation of public spaces, the creation of landscapes of collective memory, the defying of fear, and the reconstruction of public imaginaries. Other impacts include greater community-led advocacy (Davis, 2015), and better conflict resolution (Aldana Orozco et al., 2013). Local ownership and control of media is also key as this allows people to shape their communication landscapes (Pettit et al., 2009).

Bosch argues that citizen’s media are “rhizomatic” because they are rooted in horizontal relationships and tend to follow a logic of multiplicity, fluidity, and subversion (Bosch, 2009). The concept of the “rhizome” is key to understanding community media as essential spaces of connection for civil society and of mediation with state and market forces in defence of community interests (Carpentier, 2016).

Another way in which alternative media have been characterized is as “participatory”. Alternative media theory has often highlighted the role of these forms of media in fostering more democratic power relations in terms of media production and decision making inside media organizations (Carpentier, 2011: 68). This position emerges in response to mainstream media, in which media production is reserved for professionals and in which “participation remains unidirectional, articulated as a contribution to the public sphere but often mainly serving the needs and interests of the mainstream media system itself” (idem, 69).

In contrast, alternative media “enable and facilitate access and participation so that ordinary people, especially those who are misrepresented and disadvantaged, can have their voices heard and valued. This is facilitated through a horizontal power structure that shies away from ‘traditional’ media professional practices” (idem, 97). Guo highlights that alternative media also help to promote local trust (Guo, 2017). For Carpentier, this approach can be defined as “co-deciding” on content, editorial policy, technology, and structure (Carpentier, 2011: 124- 131).

In sum, participatory approaches generally understand participation as far more than “taking part in something”. They take a more political approach that sees their work as a challenge to unbalanced power structures. Carpentier proposes focusing on social processes, social and economic actors, decision-making, and power relations to better understand participatory media processes (Carpentier, 2016).

Central to both citizenship and participation-oriented approaches is the idea of voice. For Couldry, voice is a political issue that is both a social process and a value to be pursued, and that entails the possibility of expressing one’s perspective on the world – and for that voice to be recognized and considered in decision-making processes at different levels (Couldry, 2015: 44 and 51). Voice is, therefore, critical for the advancement of democracy. Nevertheless, if through the “unequal distribution of narrative resources and access to narrative forms, people lack control over the materials from which they must build their account of themselves, then that represents a deep denial of voice, a form of oppression” (idem, 46).

Thomas provides an excellent example of what this denial looks like in practice. He points out that there are broad sectors of Indian society that “have been traditionally expected to remain silent, even in the face of the most atrocious atrocities committed by the forward castes and the wealthy”, and that the jan sunwai public hearings that led to legislation on the right to information served as spaces for the recognition of individual and collective voices (Thomas, 2015: 138).

Radical media

Fuchs and Sandoval’s “critical media” approach review some of the approaches described above that emphasize participation and local-level impact as the defining features of alternative media. To them, these approaches are unable to challenge corporate media power and dominant discourses because they speak only to small counter-publics and lack the resources to reach a broader audience. This is because alternative media face the constant dilemma of seeking to remain critical of power – which often means they have very limited access to financial resources – while operating in capitalist economies where financial resources are central to their ability to influence public opinion (Fuchs and Sandoval, 2015: 173).

They also argue that this characterization of participation as the defining feature of alternative media ignores the fact that conservative groups have employed participatory approaches to advance their agendas (Fuchs and Sandoval, 2010: 143-145). Atton echoes some of these criticisms by pointing out that over-emphasis on participation and production practices has led scholars to ignore the role of audiences and how audiences interact with content (Atton, 2007: 23).

In response, Fuchs offers the concept of “critical media”, emphasizing that to be considered alternative media, the content produced by a given outlet must be “critical”. To Fuchs, this means being in opposition to corporate media monopolies, advancing the interests of the working class and the oppressed in the public sphere, working hand in hand with social movements, and promoting alternative forms of development (Fuchs, 2010: 181-185). In this definition, “commercial and non-participatory media can be understood as alternative as long as they disseminate critical media content”. They argue that alternative media must aim at reaching larger audiences to have greater public influence, even if this comes at the expense of a democratic and participatory structure (Fuchs and Sandoval 2010: 146-150).

This view is echoed by Downing’s “radical media” approach emphasizing content (Downing 2001 in Fuchs and Sandoval, 2010: 148), even if Downing does argue for democratic organizing principles within alternative media organizations (Downing 1984, 2001 in Atton, 2007: 19). Crucially, Fuchs and Sandoval argue that, given the current context of media/digital monopolies and oligopolies, there is a need for urgent media reforms that allow for new ways to resource alternative media, such as new taxes on media corporations and participatory budgeting (Fuchs and Sandoval 2015: 173).

Media power

Couldry’s “media power” framework takes a more structural approach to defining the field that can perhaps reconcile the content and structure-oriented approaches discussed above. He defines alternative media as “media that espouse practices of symbolic production which contest media power itself, which is the concentration of power to construct social reality” (Elghul-Bebawi, 2009: 29). This stance rejects liberal understandings of the media as a “fourth power” that acts as a watchdog to keep different forms of power in check and moves beyond understandings of the media as mere conduits for powerful groups (Couldry & Curran 2003, 3-4). Rather, Couldry sees media power as an emergent source of power in itself, which lies primarily in its ability to represent social reality, an ability that is generally not made explicit (idem, 3-4).

The contestation of media power can take several different forms and can be grouped under the broad concept of “alternative media”. Alternative media are therefore defined as “media production that challenges, at least implicitly, actual concentrations of media power” (idem, 7). In this sense, Couldry views alternative media as characterized by practices that introduce alternative forms of mediation and challenge the power of mainstream media institutions.

Social movement media

Another way in which media scholarship has attempted to define alternative media is as media that help serve the needs of social movements. Social movement media can be understood as “independent channels of communication set up by activists and social movement organizations to spread their message, frame their goals and demands, and to interact with media organizations” (Rucht ,2004: 29 in Cammaerts, 2015: 445).

For Cammaerts, social movement media play several roles, like tackling lack of visibility of social issues in mainstream media coverage. But to him, one of the most critical roles is that of “self-mediation, which is a process of disseminating, communicating, and recording a series of movement frames that allow for self-reflexivity and archiving and transmitting movement tactics and ideas.” These media practices and processes “allow social movements to become self-conscious”, thus creating opportunities for the movement to organize internally as well as outwardly with other social movements (Cammaerts, 2015: 448, 453).

Boler adds that web-based platforms created new opportunities for people to express themselves, which has contributed to the emergence of new forms of social movement media. She points to the desire to increase sense of community, to have a public voice, to be heard, to create spaces for productive debate, to express anger or dissatisfaction, and to “correct” what the mainstream media get wrong as the main motivators for people to engage or alternative media production (Boler, 2015: 544-547).

Online platforms also allow social movement content to become less institutional and more people-led: “in place of content that is distributed and relationships that are brokered by hierarchical organizations, social networking involves co-production and co-distribution, revealing a different economic and psychological logic: co-production and sharing based on personalized expression” (Bennet and Segerberg, 2012: 742-752).

Treré argues that social movement media are more than mere instruments for social movements. On the contrary, they constitute crucial spaces for movements to create, reproduce, and challenge social imaginaries about the world. He argues that social movements interact with, appropriate, and challenge entire ecosystems of digital, analogue, and in-person media practices technologies to advance their struggles and that in so doing they help generate the collective identities that drive mobilization (Treré, 2018: 15-41).

In this light, understanding specific media and communication practices within social movement media is a useful entry point to better understand the field. Mattoni argues that social movements generally develop a broad range of media practices, or “repertoires of communication”, and deploy them depending on each context, stage of mobilization, and set of objectives. These practices can be used to build solidarity, share knowledge, reach out to other actors, and engage in resistance (Mattoni, 2013). They are also used to expand the movement (Jeppesen, 2014).

In her study of the Occupy Movement in the United States, Kidd (2015) identifies several examples of communication practices as understood by Mattoni. She argues that practices such as “the human mic, in which participants repeated speakers’ statements en masse”; the occupation of public space to advance an idea of “the commons” and to challenge the neoliberal privatization and individualism; the creation of platforms for story-telling as a way to generate trust and broader awareness of social issues; and the production of the movement’s own news content were central for its emergence and helped define its goals and tactics (Kidd, 2015: 462-466).

Some activists have also engaged in “hacktivism”, which entails disruptive protest and direct action against network infrastructure to defend cyberspace from state control and aggressive market forces (Milan, 2015: 550-551). Other movements have taken this a step further by seeking to establish citizen-led communication infrastructure for their own communities, like community internet networks (Rey Moreno, 2017; de Filippi, 2015).

Other social movements, such as the Indignados and 15-M movements in Spain, placed the right to communication at the heart of the movement, and adopted democratic communication practices across their mobilization efforts. This allowed the movement to help turn many “small media” into “one big media” capable of providing an influential alternative narrative around austerity and precarity that challenged mainstream media in ways that could be felt in the public sphere (Barranquero & Meda, 2015).

One of the most salient communication practices among social movements is that of “trans-media storytelling”. This entails sharing messages across multiple platforms “with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole” in ways that allows decentralized activists to “create alternative media representations and express alternative political possibilities” (Hancox, 2014). This approach is key in enabling social movements to increase their visibility among several audiences (Costanza Chock 2013, pg. 99-101).

Media reform

Many of the aspirations for more democratic communication have led to sometimes successful calls for policy reform. These have been calls for structural changes to communication ecosystems in favour of democratization and the dismantling of oppressive power structures. These efforts have also sought to tackle “communication and information poverty” (Daza et al., 2007), a form of poverty that “contributes to people’s sense of powerlessness and inability to make themselves heard” and that manifests itself in the form of limited access to communication platforms, under or misrepresentation in the media, low levels of media literacy, restricted access to relevant and accurate information and knowledge, exclusion decision-making processes, and limited media freedom (Vargas and Lee, 2020: 40).

Understanding communication and information from a rights-based perspective, perhaps best crystalized in the form of the theory and practice of “the right to communicate” or “communication rights” has been critical to these efforts. Lee et al. argue that this is because taking a rights-based approach provides activists with a common lens with which to view, understand and address communication and information issues (Lee et al., 2010).

The notion of communication rights eventually turned into a social movement. It emerged at a global level during the 1980s, when the UNESCO-initiated MacBride Commission called for the democratization of communication systems and highlighted that communication is a basic need for development. Despite the failure of the MacBride process, the movement re-emerged in the 2000s in response to the ITU’s World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in the form of the Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS) Campaign (Calabrese, 2010: 323-325).

The CRIS Campaign argued for the right to freedom of expression as the starting point for communication rights, but pointed out that an analysis of how power imbalances may in some cases undermine freedom of expression was needed. For example, “a poor person seeking to highlight injustice in their lives and a powerful media mogul each have, before the law, precisely the same protection for their right to freely express their views. In practice, however, the former lacks a means to have her/his voice heard, while the latter can powerfully amplify her/his message and ensure it is widely heard” (CRIS Campaign, 2005: 22).

As a result, CRIS called for the right to freedom of expression to be promoted alongside other established rights in the International Bill of Rights as well as for diversity of media content, democratization of ownership and control of media institutions, press freedom, support for diverse and independent media, and democratic access to media (CRIS Campaign, 2005). More recently, documents such as the Charter of Digital Rights promoted by the civil society network European Digital Rights (EDRi) have put the spotlight on new important dimensions of this equation such as data protection and transparent governance (European Digital Rights, 2015).

These aspirations have been translated into policy in some national contexts, always thanks to the activism of the community and alternative media movements. The most far reaching have taken place in Latin America, where during the first two decades of this century progressive governments and civil society worked shoulder to shoulder to introduce policy frameworks that sought to democratize access to the media. Some examples are the Organic Law of Communication in Ecuador; the General Law of Telecommunications, Information and Communication Technologies in Bolivia; and the Audiovisual Communication Services Law in Argentina. With different degrees of success, these policies tended to promote the equitable distribution of broadcasting licenses between the public, private, and community/Indigenous sector; established rules to prevent and/or discourage media concentration; and created strong regulatory agencies (Segura and Waisbord, 2017).

The success of these movements in Latin America is mostly the result of broad coalitions and alliances with several other social actors. This echoes Hackett and Carroll’s analysis that describe media reform movements as somewhat unusual because they tend to be embedded in other social struggles as opposed to constituting movements in and of themselves. Their successes have been the result of their ability to build coalitions with other social movements or as connectors of social movements (Carroll & Hackett, 2006).

Conclusions

The field of community and alternative media is characterized by an astounding diversity. This makes the search for a single prism to understand a field as diverse as society itself an impossible task. Guedes Bailey, Cammaerts, and Carpentier offer a very useful way out of the labyrinth of definitions. They identify the need for a simultaneous multi-theoretical approach that understands alternative media in four key ways: alternative media as serving a community, as an alternative to the mainstream, as a link to civil society and seeking to challenge power, and as “rhizome” or “crossroads” that help connect people, movements, states, and markets (Guedes Bailey, Cammaerts, and Carpertier 2007: 27-33).

They also argue that alternative media are “trans-hegemonic” and not exclusively counter-hegemonic in that they “oscillate between acceptance and rejection, resistance and compliance, and restriction and creation” (Guedes Bailey, Cammaerts, and Carpertier 2007: 153).

The rise of digital platforms has also transformed the alternative media landscape. On the one hand, it has created new opportunities for self-expression and organization. Boler argues that web-based platforms have contributed to the emergence of new forms of social movement media. She points to the desire to increase sense of community, to have a public voice, to be heard, to create spaces for productive debate, to express anger or dissatisfaction, and to “correct” what the mainstream media get wrong as the main motivators for people to engage in online alternative media production (Boler, 2015: 544-547).

Online platforms also allow social movement content to become less institutional and more people-led: “in place of content that is distributed and relationships that are brokered by hierarchical organizations, social networking involves co-production and co-distribution, revealing a different economic and psychological logic: co-production and sharing based on personalized expression” (Bennett and Segerberg, 2012: 742-752). On the other hand, the rise of digital platforms has been a factor in fueling far right-wing “alternative” media outlets in places like the United States which, brushing aside any ethical quandaries, employ participatory and horizontal media production practices to advance anti-rights discourse and disinformation.

This dilemma reinforces the need for a clear definition of what actually constitutes alternative media so that appropriate policy interventions to promote media diversity, the public interest, and communication rights can be developed. It also underlines the need to think about the whole debate from a perspective that is less focused on the medium or technological platform of the day, and more from one that understands communication as a right that needs to be guaranteed through structural media reforms that democratize media and digital power.

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Lorenzo Vargas is a communication for development specialist and researcher on citizens’ media. He coordinates the Communication for Social Change Program of the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC), supporting community media initiatives in the Global South. He holds degrees in international development and communication from York University and McGill University, and is pursuing a PhD in Communication and Culture at Ryerson University, where he is affiliated with the Global Communication Governance Lab. He has also pursued studies on media policy at the University of Brasilia and the University of Oxford. His publications include Citizen’s Media as a Tool for the Local Construction of Peace in Colombia: Opportunities for Youth (2013); Indigenous Community Media Aid Reconciliation in Canada (2015); Expanding Shrinking Communication Spaces (ed. with Philip Lee) (2020); and Communicating Climate Change (ed. with Philip Lee) (2021).

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