Media Activism: Alternative vs Mainstream Media

I’m currently taking a class at Kutztown called Activists Writing Media: Composing Democratic Futures (yes, it’s as rad as it sounds). We’ve just finished reading The Alternative Media Handbook, which discusses various forms of alternative media and their uses throughout recent history. Now, I’m exploring a few of those forms and their use in vegan advocacy.

Last one: Alternative or Mainstream?

One debate I’m constantly having with myself when assessing the effectiveness of media activism is: Do I want to reach a wider audience but risk watering down my message, or keep my message strong but reach a smaller audience?

This argument is much like the one between the “welfarist” and “abolitionist” groups of vegans. The former argues that marginal moves toward better conditions for animals (i.e. larger cages) are more widely accepted and therefore more likely to be instated, and those effected have slightly better conditions. The latter says our message must be no cages, not bigger cages, because even slightly better conditions are still terrible conditions that no sentient being should be subject to.

This argument is always framed as an either/or, but in reality there needs to be a balance between both: we should frame our message in a way that it will get our foot in the door in mainstream media, but never lose sight of the bottom line of liberation for all animals and always aim for that goal. Mirella von Lindenfels agrees in her essay on NGO media strategy, and says that organizations must always consider their message and how best to get it across. “For NGOs there is no choice between traditional and new,” she writes. “Who do you need to reach and which channel will enable you to do that?”

Many organizations, most notably of all PETA, rely on sensationalism to get their message into the mainstream media. This, however, undercuts the message by exploiting emotion, which can decrease public trust in the organization and, thereby, the movement. The Alternative Media Handbook cites an Advertising Standards Authority statement from 1995 that says “overstepping the line between presenting a possibly distressing, but accurate, picture of their cause and misinforming people about an issue by exaggeration or stretching the truth, exploits the trust that the public have in charities and certain pressure groups” (149).

All said, it’s much harder to get a message out using mainstream media options. Even if you water it down enough to fit into the hegemonic story journalists are selling, you must also be able to speak their language better than corporations that have a lot of money to devote to selling their own stories.

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