The last decade has witnessed mainstream media content making a not-so-subtle shift from ‘hard news’ towards infotainment.
Journalist reportage is said to have succumbed to sensationalism, where malpractices such as commercialization and tabloidization abound.
While some analysts felt that this change has spelled greater democratization of cultures and mirrored new-age values, others think of it as a dramatization and oversimplification of news at the hands of a generation of performers in the garb of anchors and news analysts.
In an alleged quest for profits and viewership, mainstream media is said to be waning in its responsibility to uncover and deliver the truth, as also in evaluating or analyzing critically, claims made by government authorities.
Market pressures are accused of having led to further erosion in the quality of news.
Owing to the ethical constraints and structured boundaries within which the mainstream media is forced to operate, the origin of an alternate approach – which vests more power with the citizens – was just a matter of time.
Birth of Alternative Journalism
Alternative journalism, as the name suggests, is an alternative to mainstream media.
As a concept, alternative journalism has its roots in the radical publishing that was undertaken during the nineteenth century by fringe groups and disenfranchised citizens to express their opinion.
Comprising the media of marginal political players, protest groups, and dissidents, this form of journalism was born out of an attempt to counterbalance mainstream reporting dynamics.
This fact naturally meant that alternative journalism follows a different pattern; is governed by a different set of ethics (if any), and resonates with ideologies that are distinct from the mainstream.
Drawing from definitions offered by various freelance journalists, alternative journalism is defined as a non-commercial media that nurtures and demonstrates active citizenship, challenges the status quo, facilitates democratic debate, gives voice to the unheard, and provides perspectives divorced from those presented by mainstream media
Alternative journalism suggests, firstly, that the locus of authority need not be institutional or professional; secondly, that credibility and trustworthiness can stem from real-time experiences and not necessarily from objectively detached reporting; and thirdly, that facts and values need not be mutually exclusive.
Alternative journalism’s ability to establish a ‘connectedness’ between writer and audience has helped fill a void created by dominant journalism.
The world has acknowledged the role of alternative media in empowering the community by challenging social discourses and cultural codes.
Professional journalists have gained insight from this form of writing to fine-tune their practices
Noteworthy contributions made to journalism by amateurs (through the internet), indigenous community radio stations, newspapers, and even television stations, have added heft to the spectrum of information and knowledge available for all.
Alternative Journalism: Weaknesses
Alternative Journalism may sometimes lead to the ‘construction’ of reality by a journalist, who may be considered as the sole authority on the subject in the absence of a voice to challenge their viewpoint.
This abandonment of objectivity and impartiality may lead to a state of perpetual tension among relations/cultures/histories; and militate against the power/knowledge complex that helps stabilize power relations by presenting ideologically accepted forms of knowledge (Atton, 2004)
Alternative media’s ‘deprofessionalized’ approach is said to cause ‘denaturalization’ of media spaces, through attempts at rebalancing by the audience, who don the role of media activists and seek to redefine media power in their own words and space.
Such reports, aimed at mobilizing public opinion, sometimes, resemble the campaigning journalism of mainstream media (Atton, 2004).
The Modern Era Paradox
Although both mainstream and alternative media practices strive to bring out the truth, it is ironic that while the ethics-bound mainstream media is said to have failed to uncover hidden truths, its counterpart – with no defined ethical boundaries – is seen as going the extra mile to discover the truth.
The modern era’s paradox is that mainstream journalism is criticized for the same practices in which alternative journalism is being lauded.
However, to give mainstream media its due, it may be prudent to point out that this form of journalism is bound by both strict parameters, and an obligation to maintain credible journalistic standards even in the face of mounting viewership crunch, dwindling profits, besides an onslaught of online media.
If it blatantly exposed hard facts, it is considered to be overstepping journalistic ethics; if it dilutes the news to limit it within the ethical framework, it is accused of oversimplifying facts and in the process, dumbing down the audience.
Fine-tuning Alternative Journalism
Ideally, journalism that follows structured ethics, and prioritizes truthful news-delivery instead of succumbing to commercial pressures, is what makes for responsible journalism.
Today both alternative and mainstream journalism are ridiculed for failing to observe ideal journalistic practices.
While on the one hand, there is acute concern about a profit-driven mainstream media compromising on journalistic ethics by becoming a mouthpiece of the elite, there’s an equally pronounced concern about alternative journalism perpetuating rumor-mongering and in turn, compromising on journalistic ethics, being unbridled in nature and lacking in checks and balances.
Since both forms of journalism have their own sets of strengths and weaknesses, it’s hard to point out which is right or wrong.
Ideally, journalism, which follows structured ethics and prioritizes truthful news delivery instead of succumbing to commercial pressures, is what makes for responsible journalism.
However, today both alternative and mainstream journalism is ridiculed for failing to observe ideal journalistic practices.
Since both forms of journalism have their own sets of strengths and weaknesses, it is difficult to point out which is right or wrong.
However, one must understand that unless mainstream media reverses its commercial outlook and takes steps to regain its credibility through balanced and responsible reporting, the co-existence of both forms of journalism is inevitable
Who knows, in a bid to acquire more credibility, alternative journalism, as we know it today, may gradually morph into the mainstream, and we see the emergence of yet another alternative. Who knows, time may witness the emergence of an ideal hybrid that can withstand the test of time.