How do I know Osama bin Laden is Dead? A Little Bird Told Me.

Posted on May 2, 2011


I will admit my gut reaction was old school.

When I heard that President Obama was giving a little impromptu 10:30 p.m. Sunday televised speech–without a shred of detail to foreshadow such a jaw-dropping event–I turned on the TV with the remote control in my left hand and tuned to CNN.

With my right hand, however, I reached for Twitter.

By now the world know which news source was more on top of the news even before it officially broke. While Wolf Blitzer was telling us he had “gut instincts” he could not reveal, while pompously letting us know that a White House official had commended his “restraint” for not speculating, Twitter burst open like a boiled cranberry, spilling out the secret that Osama bin Laden was dead (thanks Keith Urbahn!). The tweets began to swirl with the speed of hurricane force winds, from seemingly every member of the media and public.

Obama bin Laden

Fox IDs Osama as Obama!

Not all of them were right, of course. No, bin Laden was not killed last week and we were just now learning about it. He was in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. And it was indeed Osama bin Laden who was dead, not his long-lost relative Obama bin Laden (one of my student asked if that was an “accident” by Fox News. I have no comment on that.).

But the speed and tenacity of Twitter was breathtaking, inspiring, truly game-changing for everyone in journalism. Of course we already knew Twitter could play the game at the highest level, but what else did May 1, 2011 teach us about news gathering and dissemination, and the world in which we live?

Here are three things I learned:

Twitter and Osama bin Laden

From @miguelrios, Flickr

    1. The Right Tools Help Get the Job Done: In my journalism classes we have been learning about the tools of this new journalism trade–Twitter, Facebook, blogs, conventional writing in print or online–and when to use what. Yesterday was a crash course in breaking, commenting on and interpreting news as it happens. Twitter is our wire service–get the headlines out as fast as possible (an average of 3,440 per second from 10:45 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., says the New York Times and this graphic on Flickr.Facebook was for jingoistic cheers, snarky comments between friends, personal observations and reflections intended for–surprise–people who are your “friends.” (The Times says that as the news spread, there were more than five million mentions of Bin Laden on Facebook–in the United States alone.) And when we wanted to find out the details–what exactly happened, when, to whom, we may have gone back to Twitter–but for the links to the long-form, trained-journalist generated content that the industry has done so well through so many life-changing events.
    2. Knowledge is infectious:Part of the fun of being privy to  information is sharing, and we were all tweeting and  re-tweeting last night like sugar-fueled teenage girls at a slumber party. How awesome it was to “talk” to my students, my co-workers, my well-plugged in friends and the best news people in the business until the early hours of Monday.It was a good kind of tired.
  1. Perspective is a Funny Thing:My treasured friend, Michael, who has actual been to Iraq and Afghanistan many times in his government job, who wore desert camo because it could save his life, not to look trendy (and is arguably the smartest person I know), had a Facebook post today that put everything in perspective for me. While Ohio State students are jumping in Mirror Lake in the name of America (I don’t fully get it either), conservatives were taking shots at Obama (typos, my pinkie), and Phillies and Mets fans were credited with putting aside their mutual disdain to celebrate by shouting “USA! USA!” throughout 14 innings of baseball, Michael wrote, “Tonight, after ten years, I will sleep well.”Now that gave me a gut reaction.

What are the things you learned about the coverage–or yourself–last night, and what do you think journalism will take from this moving forward? What secret did the little bird tell you?

Posted in: Journalism