Media punks challenge the mainstream'seasy-listening attitude

Conventional journalism has a lot to learn from those who take a ‘quirkier’ approach, writes Tony Harcup, author of a new study

Just as punk rock once shook up a complacent music industry, so
mainstream media needs to be kicked up the backside every now and then.
And the journalistic equivalent of Anarchy in the UK is provided by a
diverse range of alternative publications, broadcasts and websites,
according to research to be published next month*.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury called recently for journalists to
treat audiences as citizens rather than mere consumers, he became an
unlikely bedfellow of the rabble-rousers who are responsible for what
has become known as alternative media. But he parted company with them
when he added that journalists should cut down on “high levels of
adversarial and suspicious probing”. If there is one thing that
different alternative media have in common, it is that they are even
more adversarial and suspicious of those in power than are mainstream
media.

Journalism produced in alternative media – as was seen in
the Seventies heyday of the alternative press and still found today on
Indymedia websites and in the SchNEWS newsletter – is often thought of
as being a whole other world from mainstream journalism.

But the
new study suggests that alternative and mainstream journalism both
inhabit the same planet. “Mainstream media are always stealing the
styles, content and contributors of alternative media,” says one
journalist who made the transition from alternative to mainstream.

“It’s a bit like an underground music scene, things filter through.”

The
study suggests that, for some people, working for alternative media
(usually unpaid) has become an alternative entry point into mainstream
journalism.

Those who move from alternative to mainstream
continue to use skills and sources they picked up at the more radical
end of the media spectrum.

As another journalist who made the
switch says: “I had loads of obscure, and occasionally well-placed,
contacts that very few other journalists had. I also believe working in
alternative media gives journalists an outlook on things that is
unusual. The things that capture the imagination are different from
other journalists. You see stories where others don’t and vice versa;
there is a quirkiness of viewpoint.”

It is this “quirkiness of viewpoint” that can help revitalise mainstream media, not just by providing a pool of “quirky” journalists.
The environmental news stories and features that we now expect from
most serious media were once the preserve of the alternative fringe and
fanzine-style supporters’ perspectives are now commonly featured in
mainstream sports journalism.

“There’s always a need for alternative viewpoints and diversity if any change is to be made to current conditions,” argues
another former alternative journalist who has since made a career in
the mainstream. “One example might be that in the Seventies feminist
journals raised issues which were taken up by trade unions in the
Eighties and became copy for the mainstream in the Nineties. Issues like domestic violence or sexual harassment at work were unsayable until said by the alternative media.”

Some
of those questioned had got together with others to say the unsayable
by setting up alternative media projects from scratch. One recalls: “We
probably had a slightly evangelical desire to shake people up, get
other people writing, and also just to let off steam and give others a
vehicle to do so.” Others joined in existing alternative media
projects, often in response to appeals for volunteers: “I arrived in
the office one morning, offered to make coffee, but was sent out on a
reporting job instead.”

In this sense, alternative media can
provide an introduction to journalistic practice for many people whose
quest to learn skills is combined with a more social desire to shake
things up.

One freelance journalist explains how her experience
of alternative media informed her journalism within the mainstream
later on: “This doesn’t imply that other journalists don’t feel the
same, but I have a commitment to giving a voice to people who aren’t
usually heard. As a reporter that would mean talking to the homeless
person before the housing officer, for example, and presenting
campaigning, squatting, feminism, lesbian and gay rights, etc, as a
normal part of everyday life.”

As journalists now working in
mainstream media, most of those taking part in the study still use
alternative media as sources of ideas, stories and contacts.

However,
some feel that today’s outlets such as Indymedia are less interested in
investigative reporting than were the likes of the Leveller or Leeds
Other Paper in the Seventies and Eighties.

Writing in the
alternative magazine Red Pepper last year, Guardian journalist Gary
Younge stressed the importance of such challenges to a complacent
mainstream: “We need alternative media to raise the bar of what is
regarded as acceptable or desirable, and to challenge the skewed
version of ‘normality’ pumped out by the regular press.”

The
results don’t always make for comfortable reading, but whose life was
ever changed by easy-listening muzak? As Joe Strummer of The Clash put
it: “The truth is only known by guttersnipes.”

* “I’m Doing This
to Change the World: Journalism in Alternative and Mainstream Media”,
Tony Harcup, Journalism Studies Vol 6, August 2005.

Tony Harcup is author of Journalism: Principles and Practice (Sage, 2004)n and teaches at the University of Sheffield.

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