What does the term “mainstream media” actually mean? Which companies fall under the label? Why is some popular media labeled “alternative” instead?

These questions sparked an interesting discussion among members of our AllSides team.

Below are the team's main takeaways, as well as their discussion, edited for brevity. 

Main Takeaways

Julie Mastrine, Director of Marketing and Bias Ratings AllSides Media Bias Rating: Lean Right

What makes a media outlet “mainstream” has something to do with a combination of the length of time it has been around, the resources it has, its reach, and importantly, if it pushes mainstream narratives. “Mainstream” here is defined by what is common or the norm. The New York Times was founded in 1851, and CNN in 1980, but I consider both to be “mainstream” because of their impact, reach, and pushing of mainstream narratives shared by our political and professional elite class, typically on one side of the aisle. Other outlets I consider “mainstream” would be ABC, NBC, Fox, CBS, MSNBC, and USA Today. 

Fox would fall under this category because of its reach and because it provides a platform for typical Republican and conservative views (though when it had Tucker Carlson, it strayed from this). Alternative media like Joe Rogan and Timcast are not exactly mainstream, in my personal definition, because they explore dissident voices outside of the professional and political elite class. 

Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor AllSides Media Bias Rating: Center

“Mainstream media” defines institutions that not only have corporate backing and ample resources, but also brand recognition as a source of news built over time. “Alternative media” may have equal or greater audience reach, but the very fact that it is new, less-regulated, and semi-undefined hinders its credibility in the eyes of key decision makers, who tend to opt for mainstream media. However, the newness and semi-independence of alternative media affords it certain freedoms that appeal to audiences who believe mainstream media has grown irrevocably bogged down by corporate interests and political ties, the very things giving it a competitive advantage over alternative media.

I note how bias in mainstream media’s coverage of alternative media outlets appears aimed at discrediting alternative media as a reliable source of information, perhaps due to a perceived threat to the supposed monopoly of credibility that mainstream media seeks to maintain. 

Joseph Ratliff, Daily News Editor AllSides Media Bias Rating: Lean Left

I make two arguments here. One, that certain “mainstream” outlets are granted more credibility and respect than others because (1) they employ a large staff of (actual) reporters and (2) they have the ear of key decision makers, making their work more impactful. 

Second, the only reason we care about the word “mainstream” is because Fox News for years used it as a way to make itself seem edgy, as if its primary audience weren’t former Reagan voters in nursing homes. While the concept of media reputability is certainly worth discussing, the word “mainstream” itself is a marketing tactic, not a substantive level of media analysis.  

Clare Ashcraft, Bridging Assistant AllSides Media Bias Rating: Center

I point to a few examples of small outlets striving to build institutions and ask “when do they transfer from alternative to mainstream?” The term “mainstream media" conjures up images of a newsroom busy with reporters and editors. It seems like mainstream media institutions have systems of checks and balances, and a sizable staff and audience, but it is hard to draw a line that constitutes “sizeable.” Similarly, if legacy or name recognition is a factor, which differs from audience size, how do we measure that? How long does an outlet have to be around? Mainstream media is a fluid definition meant to capture the “broadly accepted” outlets, but with the fracturing of attention across America and the rise of independent media, what’s “mainstream” is becoming more difficult to name. 

Henry A. Brechter, Editor-in-chief AllSides Media Bias Rating: Center

When we say “mainstream” as a news team, I think we simply mean the “legacy” outlets that have been around a while. In my mind, Fox News is among them. These are outlets with long-established ways of doing things, and are typically more beholden to the “big media business model,” aka clicks and views on content. 

The “alt” side’s business is more dependent on cultivating intimate relationships with their audience to drive subscribers, word-of-mouth reach, and other close forms of engagement – much more personal and less distant than the basic clicks and views Fox and CNN live off of. 

To that end, it’s not hard to see why people trust these independent sources now far more than they do some of the “legacy” ones, even if those outlets have decades of experience, “traditional fundamentals,” etc.

Andy Gorel, News Curator AllSides Media Bias Rating: Center

I believe mainstream is simply not quantifiable in any way, it’s just a gut thing. In music, traditionally something that was mainstream was on a major label, on the radio, mtv, etc because they had access to all that stuff through the industry. As norms have shifted in both music and journalism, those lines have been blurred because you can have a lot of reach without being mainstream. For instance, Steve Bannon’s podcast gets a lot of viewers, but it is absolutely not mainstream. In media, unlike music however, mainstream sources or even NGOs, the government, etc will try to limit the visibility of certain media, which also can play a factor.

Mainstream - i think you just know when it’s definitely mainstream, and then there are things that are on the edges of mainstream. Like in music, if people who aren’t into music more than the average person know it, then it’s mainstream. I think you could say the same for media. We are a group who all know outlets very well that are not mainstream. To me Fox is mainstream, so is Joe Rogan. The Intercept is even mainstream, so is Matt Taibbi, but Matt Taibbi is kind of where that new age thing comes in that Isaiah talks about. Sites like Salon or UnHerd, despite being reputable outlets known by a lot of people, they’re definitely not consumed regularly by the mainstream. I kind of agree with Joseph that it might not really need to be defined. It’s kind of a feel thing.


Julie AllSides Media Bias Rating: Lean Right

A friend of mine raised an interesting question on Twitter: “The average Timcast or Joe Rogan podcast gets exponentially more traffic than Legacy Media. So are they still Alt Media?”

I think we had discussed doing a "what is mainstream media?" post before… I do not think there is any agreed-upon definition.

Like, what does "mainstream media" mean to you? Is it the outlets with the most views? or the legacy outlets? etc

Scott McDonald, Co-founder and CTO AllSides Media Bias Rating: Lean Left

This is why no one is being ‘censored’ by the media. Alt is bigger. There are teenage influencers with 100 times Tucker Carlson's audience.

Julie AllSides Media Bias Rating: Lean Right

It's a term we do not use in our marketing since the definition is so loose, but could be fun to explore perspectives on.

Isaiah AllSides Media Bias Rating: Center

It’s also interesting how "mainstream" media covers "alt" media. There are examples of CNN and others with negative coverage of Joe Rogan and more recently negative coverage of Russell Brand's show. There was a daily beast article about brand that was incredibly overt in its bias. It really seems to me like the old feeling threatened by the new and attempting to undermine credibility.

Joseph AllSides Media Bias Rating: Lean Left

I mean, I'm not totally convinced "alt" media really gets that much more attention than "mainstream" media. Obviously, part of the distinction is cable news/respectable broadcast news vs opinion/commentary. I think a big part of the distinction is also who listens to which media, aka elite decision-makers or everyday people.

Your average Joe may listen to Rogan a lot, but the people making policy decisions in his state read The Wall Street Journal. There's probably something to be said regarding the types of media different people consume.

Isaiah AllSides Media Bias Rating: Center

True, but the people voting for those decision makers are more likely to be listening to Rogan, Tim Pool, etc., so the relevance and influence is there.

Joseph AllSides Media Bias Rating: Lean Left

Yeah, but it's a different type of relevance.

Scott AllSides Media Bias Rating: Lean Left

I think Isaiah hit it earlier with ‘credibility.’ No one assumes Joe Rogan has fact checkers or any check and balances. No one thought Howard Stern was ‘news.’ People got their news from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but he never was considered ‘legit’ news in the same way. Numbers alone don’t make a news source more or less mainstream.

Joseph AllSides Media Bias Rating: Lean Left

At the end of the day, "mainstream" is just a word Fox News uses to make itself seem cooler than other cable news channels, and I'm not convinced it really needs to be defined more carefully. Sources are just sources, it matters more how they’re used.

Isaiah AllSides Media Bias Rating: Center

So maybe it’s more "legacy" vs "new age," then.

Clare AllSides Media Bias Rating: Center

I would say maybe it's more about institutionalization. I could argue Joe Rogan is more credible than BuzzFeed News when it comes to a topic like fitness because he comes from a fitness background. Mainstream media is an institution that has fact checkers and editors, etc, which typically makes us think of them as more credible, but I'm not sure that's necessarily the case 100% of the time.

Julie AllSides Media Bias Rating: Lean Right

“New age” has a distinct spiritual meaning. I think legacy vs alt or just independent captures it.

And I agree with Clare. Just because someone is a fact checker or has a fact checker, doesn't mean they are inherently trustworthy or knowledgable.

Clare AllSides Media Bias Rating: Center

I think The Free Press (Center) would be an interesting case study for this. They market themselves as independent and they're on Substack which is associated with independent writers, but they have multiple writers on staff and some of them, like Bari Wiess are "classically trained" as journalists. 

If you say they are mainstream because they are an institution, is Matt Taibbi an alternative? Because he is also classically trained, but he writes for himself.

Or our friend Isaac Saul at Tangle, because he writes under a brand and is starting to grow a team to help fact check. But I don’t know if I’d say he’s mainstream. 

In other words, what constitutes something as an institution?

Julie AllSides Media Bias Rating: Lean Right

Institution has multiple meanings, one is “One long associated with a specified place, position, or function.” So, “startup”-type outlets like the Free Press and Tangle are too new to be considered legacy institutions. They are still institutions in the sense that they have been instituted, aka merely established.

The phenomenon of journalists who left legacy outlets to create startups is notable here. Glenn Greenwald, Bari Weiss, Tim Pool, all fall into that category. Isaac to some degree as well.

AllSides encourages open dialogue between our team members. One of our greatest strengths is the ideological diversity of our team, and team members' willingness to speak their minds.

This conversation was edited for brevity by Henry Brechter, Editor-in-chief (Center bias).