The Difference Between Mainstream and Alternative Media as Seen through their Reporting of the Virginia Tech Massacre
The Difference Between Mainstream and Alternative Media as Seen through their Reporting of the Virginia Tech Massacre
In the 21st century, man’s knowledge of the outside world is dependent on media - The Difference Between Mainstream and Alternative Media as Seen through their Reporting of the Virginia Tech Massacre introduction. The information can be relayed to him in the form of print, broadcast, TV, Websites and other Internet related means of information
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dissemination. Furthermore, information such as important news stories can be accessed via two primary means: 1) Mainstream Media and 2) Alternative Media. At a casual glance both medium may look and sound the same especially when talking about the same subject matter. But upon closer inspection Mainstream and Alternative media differ in their methodology as well as objectives.
This paper will examine the major differences and at the same time attempt to understand the motivational force behind the organization or the personalities behind such information dissemination. This can be done by looking at the methods used by each respective form of media to gather pertinent data and interpreting the same. The two forms of media can be differentiated even much further by examining the objectives based on what the organization stands for. Furthermore, in order not to digress far from the main agenda, the two forms of media will be analyzed with regards to how mainstream and alternative media handled a sensational case – the Virginia Tech Massacre. But before going any further it is imperative to find out some basic information about the two main categories of media.
An easier way of defining mainstream media is to list a few examples. And this will lead one to centralized and well organized groups such as CNN, the Fox News Network, BBC News, and publications such as TIME, Newsweek etc. Others will define mainstream media as a source of information trying its best to keep up with mainstream culture. Well, one has to accept that the aforementioned giant news network simply evolved from traditional information dissemination mechanisms that began in the Modern Age such newspapers. This may be the reason why mainstream media lead the way and that is simply because this has been the way things are done as far as one can remember.
By following tradition, mainstream media is only being true to its ideals which Chris Atton describes as reporting truth, objectivity, and reality. It is this high level of responsible reporting which again according to Atton we will, “…find at the heart of mainstream media practices” (9). It is now easy to understand why people trust mainstream media and reach a wider audience as evidenced by the significant number of corporations wanting to advertise their product during commercial breaks.
With its strengths comes also weaknesses as mainstream media has to always stay in the middle of every issue, always balancing truth and never appearing biased. Mainstream media can only go on the attack mode like criticizing a public official but only if they are backed up with irrefutable facts. The need to be objective can also result in making the audience or the consumers of news information craving for more.
Mitzi Waltz used the following terms to describe the stunted growth of mainstream media: 1) homogenized offerings; 2) multiplicity of sameness; 3) truncated imagination; and 4) unadventurous. To this list of complaints Waltz adds that mainstream media cares little for the minority and marginalized population making these people feel that their needs are not met. But it is not only the audience who feel dissatisfied with the mainstream according to Waltz, “Those who work in the media can frequently be found muttering angrily around the water-cooler as well. They find that their scope for creativity and opinion is increasingly constrained by owners who demand standardized products aimed at standardized audience” (8).
It is at this point when many will desire for the more adventurous type of news reporting or news analysis. When providers of news information decided to report something that is only based on a hunch or a gut feel then they leave the safety of mainstream media and venture into the wilder side of reporting news and it is called alternative media.
Just like the attempt to define mainstream media it is much more difficult to pin down the exact definition of alternative media. And just like what was done previously the proponent of this paper will list down a few examples just to give an idea of what it is all about. The following are just some of the more popular examples:
l radical political websites;
l discussion lists;
l net radio sites;
l fan sites;
l personal websites;
l podcasts and YouTube.
Catton summarizes the benefits of alternative media by saying that this particular type of information dissemination allows for greater potential for participation. Moreover Catton remarked that, “Rather than media production being the province of elite, centralized organizations and institutions, alternative media offer possibilities for individuals to and groups to create their own media from the periphery” (9). But Catton is also the first to sound the warning that doing so can also be likened to walking the danger side as the line separating truth from fiction is made blurred.
Comparing Alternative and Mainstream
It is now time to stop theorizing and go on a deeper comparison. And as promised this will be done by examining how mainstream and alternative media provided information with regards to the Virginia Tech Massacre. In the following pages both forms of media will be talking of the same subject the shooting, the killer, the venue and the people involved but showing different methodologies especially in the means of gathering data.
Virginia Tech Massacre
There will be three examples of mainstream media that will be discussed in the following pages. The same number of examples will also be examined from the alternative media. Now, starting with the mainstream, ABC News provides a factual and objective reporting of the Virginia Tech massacre. There were specific police reports as well as interviews that were utilized in achieving the most accurate information as possible. Within the report, there were accurate accounts of evidence from the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho. The details of the report were given as follows:
Police say the senior English major, who lived in Harper Hall dormitory on the university campus, was likely responsible for both shootings at the university, the first of which took place at around 7:15 a.m. Monday morning when two people were killed at West Ambler Johnston Hall dormitory. Later that morning, the remaining victims were killed in Norris Hall, the engineering studies building (see ABC News).
Another mainstream source of the massacre can be accessed from CNN and the same solid research was displayed when the journalist in-charge of reporting the background information of the shooter and they were careful to reveal their sources and in this case it was the chief police officer, “The gunman in Monday’s massacre … Cho Seung-Hui, a 23-year-old senior English major from Cetreville, Virginia, Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flnchum said Tuesday” (see CNN). CNN also revealed another reliable source, citing that they got the information – about a note that the shooter allegedly wrote before the rampage – from a government official.
Fox News, another major provider of mainstream media reported on the mental illness angle and they also did not fail to cite their sources which is according to the correspondent, taken from official documents, “Seung-Hui Cho was found ‘mentally ill and in need of hospitalization’ in December 2005, according to court papers. A judge ordered him into involuntary outpatient treatment” (see Fox News). Now, all three must be compared to a slightly different kind of reporting coming from alternative media.
As shown by motherjones.com, the journalist continues to express an interpretation of an event that on closer inspection seems to be nothing more than based on rumors as opposed to facts gleaned from primary sources:
The first person killed by Seung-Hui Cho, a freshman named Emily Hilscher, was initially rumored to be Cho’s current or former girlfriend, the subject of his obsession or jealous rage. It now appears that she never had a relationship with Cho, but the rumors were spread quickly, especially by blogs and by the international tabloid press (see motherjones.com).
Another example of alternative media is the need to make sense to a senseless crime, a student killing 32 fellow students. And so Mark Dombeck and Natalie Staats, holders of doctorates in philosophy ventured to diagnose Seung-Hui Cho and though they were honest enough to say that they are not sure about their diagnosis they went ahead to offer what they thought was the main reason that drove the shooter to a killing spree and they wrote that Cho was psychotic based on the following:
1. the unprovoked nature of his attacks;
2. viewing parts of the “multimedia manifesto”, his voice is monotone and pressured; and
3. his face expressionless and emotionless, and the content of the manifest is irrational (MentalHelp.net).
The last example from the alternative media is taken from Prison Planet.com, a site sponsored by a group of conspiracy theorists. They are also actively pursuing change in the way people see the violent video games. And so their conclusion is that Cho was a mind controlled assassin and his brainwashing came from playing violent video games. There is no credible sources and the group did not even provide links that will lead the reader to studies made on violent video games and its harmful effects.
As seen in the previous discussion, information can be accessed and validated through different yet distinct ways. However, it is how journalists corroborate that information that defines whether it is to be of mainstream or independent media. It is through mainstream media that journalists are able to verify rumors and false accusations that have been spread throughout the community. Therefore, with the use of these verifications, the public is able to put their faith into what they are reading in the news papers and hearing in the news. The journalists set forth their focus into accessing the information themselves rather than believing what they have heard.
On the other hand, alternative media puts emphasis into interpretations rather than verification of facts as well as independent discovery. Journalists tend to put forth their effort into receiving information like any other citizen from word of mouth. Therefore, most of the information that is given from an independent media source tends to have another source of their own, instead of having an actual hands on encounter or even a substantial witness to corroborate their information.
One more thing, alternative media uses information gathered from mainstream media that they in turn repackaged to suit their own needs and serve their own purposes. The rumor discussed in motherjones.com was taken from preliminary reports about the personalities involved in the massacre. While MentalHelp.net obviously got their idea from official reports that Cho was earlier diagnosed to be mentally ill and they just used the “multimedia manifesto” to prove their point.
It is understandable why mainstream media will continue to adhere to the ideals of truth and objectivity. At the same time it is also understandable why alternative media will continually challenge notions of truth and objectivity. Most of the time providers of alternative media are simply filling up the void deliberately left out by practitioners of mainstream media. In short alternative media is simply making life more meaningful and adventurous. But let no one be fooled as to where to get their feel of trustworthy news.
CNN.com “Source: Gunman Angry at ‘Rich Kids.’ CNN [online] 26 March 2008. Accessed
Dombeck, Mark. & Natalie Staats. “Diagnosing Seung-Hui Cho.” MentalHelp.net. 25 March
2008. Accessed from http://www.mentalhelp.net/
FOXNEWS.COM. “Report: Virginia Tech Killer Failed to Get Court-Ordered Mental Health
Treatment.” Fox News [online] 25 March 2008 Accessed from
Goldman, Russell. “Shooter, Cho, was a loner,’ official says” abcnews.go.com , April 2007.
Accessed from http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=3048534
Prison Planet.com. “Seung-Hui Cho Was a Mind Controlled Assassin.” 25 March 2008 from
Ridgeway, James. “Mass Murderers and Women: What We’re Still Not Getting About Virginia
Tech.” motherjones.com, 20 April 2007 Accessed from