When The Press Gets It Wrong

On early Wednesday, November 4, Emily Harrington began a climbing journey at Yosemite that would later leave a mark on the history of the discipline. Harrington’s endeavor was prominent for two main reasons: she was the first woman to free climb the Golden Gate route of El Capitan in less than 24 hours, and her success later lead to a domino effect of misreporting from well-established news organizations.

Days after Harrington’s success, multiple news outlets posted an article stating the climber was the first woman to free climb El Capitan in Yosemite. The post resulted in an outcry from the climbing community on social media, with Harrington correcting the news agencies via Twitter

Climbing enthusiasts and professionals alike, took to Twitter and Facebook to correct the articles’ mishap. Lynn Hill, Steph Davis, and Mayan Smith-Gobat had already free climbed other routes of El Capitan before Harrington’s send. 

As reported by Outsider, the compendium of news organizations that got the story wrong included the Associated Press, The Guardian, BBC, NBC, Sports Illustrated, CNN, among others. It is believed that the organization that initiated the domino effect was the AP, after the other outlets picked up the story from the wire-service news agency.

This level of mishap in news reporting is prominent for obvious reasons: it ignores the accomplishments of previous athletes and it takes attention away from the success of the current one. However, there are underlying technical issues in the misreporting fiasco that must be analyzed. 

After reviewing the timeframe in which the articles were posted (U.S. election process), there are several scenarios that could have led to the reporting mishap. The story could have been potentially pushed back because of the hectic election process, resulting in a lack of fact checking from the reporter and/or editorial board. There was a lack of experience and/or context knowledge from the niche reporter. News agencies relied heavily on the reputation of the AP and previous experience using their wire-service. And, last but not least, there was lack of independent fact checking from the individual news organizations. 

From the compendium of news outlets that reported the event, as reported by Outsider, four have already amended the story and two have not yet made any corrections.

News organizations rely on their credibility and reputation. Editorial errors do happen and edits on stories are added more frequently than we realize. However, in this fast paced, 24-hour news cycle, it is crucial to equate the role that social media plays in the proliferation of news. 

According to Forbes Magazine, in the year 2018, 64.5% of 2.4 million internet users relied on social media to “get their news.” This number represents the potential heads that will have immediate access to a report the moment the news breaks. This news consumption trend reduces the wiggle room news organizations have to correct any errors in their report before the information reaches a wider audience.

It could be argued that the incorporation of social media has lent journalists a hand by creating a two-way street between consumer and producer. This could well be exemplified by the rapid response of the climbing community to become the editors of the press during Harrington’s Golden Gate accomplishment.

However, there are greater consequences than ultimate shame during journalistic errors via social media: the dreaded disinformation campaigns and their conspiracy “-gates” (Bill included).

Social media users spend 15 seconds or less reading a news article and are often driven to it by the headlines that appear on their feed. Although this format is often beneficial, it presents an underlying problem. Social media works with a “like” algorithm; the more a post is shared and/or liked by you or your followers, the more it will appear on your feed. When you have a headline driven audience and a platform where your followers are your editor, it opens the room for sensationalized and “fake-news” organizations to step in.

Bringing it back to Harrington’s case, how many people outside the climbing community read/shared the original news articles and believed their initial claim to be factual? It’s hard to know, but potentially thousands. It is important to also point out that this incident was quickly fact checked and amended on most reputable news outlets. However, imagine this same scenario with another piece of information coming from an obscure source. Sometimes, reading an article for 15 seconds is not enough to verify the information before sharing it.

Editors note:

  • We are big fans of Emily Harrington and are thrilled for her and her accomplishment at El Capitan.
  • Gaia has a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication and experience in political advertising and audience research and analysis.
Gaia theDIHEDRAL Co-writer

9 Replies to “When The Press Gets It Wrong”

  1. It is a combination of the 24hr. a day news cycle pressuring everyone to be first and the active encouragement of filter bubbles on the internet. One eliminates the time you need to fact check and still be as fast on the news as everyone else. To a degree, the other makes fact checking unnecessary. It is enough that a story be entertaining and fit your preconceptions..

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Filter bubbles are definitely a factor, that’s why sometimes a feed can get pretty generic. Hopefully we can still differentiate The Onion from the AP 😂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Good article! A similar thing happened out here in Colorado over the summer with women “doing” a long trail in Colorado seeking a record. Numerous media reported woman A had the record but in real life she’d taken a short cut. I think our culture suffers from a lack of curiosity and too much love for “firsts.”

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Martha! 🙂

      Oh no! Glad the truth prevailed in the end! I believe there is also lack of critical thinking, we tend to believe everything we read without further research and analysis.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you for a very balanced break down of what really happened in this case. I’ve been a working journalist for five years, and I can tell you one of the biggest challenges facing newsrooms today is lack of resources.

    Before moving to Denver to cover the tech scene, I covered crime, courts and politics for a daily newspaper in Southeastern Minnesota. When I left, I was one of two reporters. Before my colleague graciously took over city government, I covered everything except education. There was very little time to fact check anything, but we always tried our best.

    If I had to guess what really happened here was an underpaid, overworked reporter was given the assignment on deadline, made a mistake, and the story was picked up by the AP before a correction was rendered.

    It’s an unfortunate truth that plagues the industry. Newspapers weren’t prepared for the digital economy and they were bought up by hedge funds that cut staff to point where they could no longer function as intended.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Tobias! Thank you for your input and for taking the time to read and bring more perspective to the post! 🙂

      Thank you for sharing your experience and shining a light on the day-to-day of a reporter in the news industry. The fact that there are not enough tools provided for you/them to thrive in the hectic world we live in is incredible. The pressure is always on, but it helps to know you’ll have resources to rely on in the process.


      Liked by 1 person

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