Did Twitter scoop the news media on Bin Laden announcement?

The fact that news of such historical significance was first reported over Twitter may signal a monumental shift in how people receive their information.
Written by Tuan Nguyen, Contributor

As President Barack Obama was preparing to announce to the nation that Osama Bin Laden had finally been brought to justice, the news had already become THE topic of conversation on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

It was Keith Urbahn, chief of staff under former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who publicly broke the news on his Twitter account, according to the New York Times and other major news sources. At 10:25 PM eastern standard time, he tweeted, “So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.”

He quickly followed up with another message that stated, "Don't know if its true, but let's pray that it is."

The New York Times' Brian Stelter chronicles the domino effect immediately following his initial tweet:

Within minutes, anonymous sources at the Pentagon and the White House started to tell reporters the same information. ABC, CBS and NBC interrupted programming across the country at almost the same minute, 10:45 p.m., with the news. “We’re hearing absolute jubilation throughout government,” the ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz reported.

Brian Williams, an NBC News anchor, told viewers, “This story started to leak out in the public domain largely when some Congressional staffers started to make phone calls.”

The government sources remained anonymous, as The Associated Press said, “in order to speak ahead of the president.”

Mr. Obama’s address, initially planned for 10:30 p.m., was delayed repeatedly. CNN reported that he was writing the address himself.

By 11 p.m., he still had not spoken, but the news was spreading virally around the world. At that time there were more than a dozen Facebook posts with the word “bin Laden” every single second. The New York Post’s Web site blared, “We Got Him!” The Huffington Post front page read, “Dead.” Around the country, Americans gathered around televisions to digest the news. “This ends a chapter in the global war on terrorism which has defined a generation,” the NBC correspondent Richard Engel said.

The fact that news of such historical significance was first reported over Twitter instead of traditional news channels may signal a monumental shift in how people receive their information. The instantaneous nature of live micro-blogging has already enabled groups in Egypt and Iran to organize protests by bypassing any kind of potentially disruptive interference from government censors and other authorities.

So it shouldn't  be much of surprise that it's also a handy tool for quickly relaying information from the front lines of major events. For instance, while the news media is still -- even as of this writing -- wrapping their minds around what had just transpired, Mashable is reporting that another Twitter user had already been posting, as it happened, details of the U.S. military raid that took down the world's most wanted terrorist.

Jolie O'Dell reports:

Without knowing what he was doing, Sohaib Athar, a.k.a. @ReallyVirtual, has more or less just live-tweeted the raid in which terrorist Osama bin Laden was killed today.

The IT consultant resides in Abbottabad, the town where bin Laden was found and killed by a U.S. military operation.

Athar first posted about events surrounding the raid ten hours before the writing of this article, writing, “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).” He didn’t realize that he’d been tweeting about a top-secret attempt to kill an internationally wanted terrorist until nine hours later.

Athar reported that one of the copters he’d heard had crashed, and that the aircraft were not Pakistani. We now know that four helicopters had been sent to raid bin Laden’s mansion in the town, and one was hit by enemy fire from the ground.

During the raid, Athar speculates that he was two or three kilometers away from the shooting that took place. Once news broke that bin Laden had been killed in Abbottabad, Athar tweeted, “Uh oh, now I’m the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it.”

Athar further reported that traffic was shut down in some areas, and the army had cordoned off the helicopter crash site.

Yet he remains humble. “I am JUST a tweeter, awake at the time of the crash. Not many twitter users in Abbottabad, these guys are more into facebook. That’s all.”

But from this journalist's perspective, it IS a big deal. Let's not forget that it wasn't too long ago that the established media was both reviled and revered as a "gatekeeper" for the important news of the day. But now, in the age of instant news, sites like Twitter have forced people to re-assess that notion.

So what kind of role will established media like CNN and news wires have now? To confirm or dispel reports from the persistent rumor mill, even as the information spreads at a viral pace throughout the Twitter and Facebook universe? Perhaps to provide comprehensive in-depth reporting, images and analysis that helps the public make sense of all the racket?

What do you think?

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