Never before has the hurdle one must clear for sharing information with mass audiences been so low, and never has the expansion and consistency of establishment journalism in the digital space been so imperative.
The growth and influence of consumer-generated media and unreliable Web sites increase the likelihood that the "media democratization" inspired by new technologies will instead result in information balkanization dominated by ideologues. Unless today's media institutions develop a more visible digital brand and align their editorial resources and content in the digital and traditional news formats, they risk becoming just another viewpoint.
I'm not advocating censorship of Web voices, but I do feel we need more and better media relationships in the digital space to help provide honest, ethical, and factual information. The public today seems more susceptible to and accepting of what is at best dubious information they see on e-mail, mobile phones, and Web sites.
Because established channels of journalism have been slow to enter the digital fray or have not allied their digital and traditional news vehicles into a cohesive force, independent and unchecked sources of "news" may bring more heat than light to consumers of information in the digital world.
Traditional media have made it to the digital world, but in doing so created a divide between their newspaper/TV content and online offerings. The quality of reporting and oversight isn't always the same in each area. As more people move from traditional media formats to the digitally delivered variety, this barrier will have to fall once and for all. There should be one, overriding authority and editorial standard for both the traditional and digital content provided by today's respected media institutions.
A colleague shared a story about a recent experience with an earnings release. The Web-based staff of a leading paper filed a story on its Web site that included a major factual error about an earnings forecast. Despite calls to the outlet's online version, the error remained in the story for hours. The sister paper's beat reporter could not correct it because he did not work in the online part of the business.
Meantime, the error was noted and picked up by other media outlets, blogs, and Web sites. Around the same time, another online news provider, owned by the same parent, posted its own earnings story with a totally different take on events. The next day, the print version of the story had yet another viewpoint, which appeared online in place of the error-filled story filed there the day before.
What is the digital news consumer to think? How can a trusted news outlet build credibility with digital audiences if it allows three different stories about the same event to be written, edited, and distributed by three different entities under the same brand? Not to mention the faulty process that led to an error being published online - and remain there for hours.
The institutions that have bolstered the free press' credibility must tear down the digital divide in their newsrooms and build their authority in a cohesive, consistent manner, regardless of where the content is consumed. If not, consumer-generated media and nattering Net nabobs will shape a new reality for an information-hungry public, one that may make journalism as we know it less relevant.
David Sandor is VP of PR at The Home Depot.