NEW YORK – A soldier in Afghanistan learned about the death of Osama bin Laden on Facebook. A TV producer in South Carolina got a tip from comedian Kathy Griffin on Twitter. A blues musician in Denver received an email alert from The New York Times. And a Kansas woman found out as she absently scrolled through the Internet on her smartphone while walking her dog.
In an illustration of how the information world has changed, many people learned through media formats or devices that weren’t available a decade ago that the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had been killed.
“It just kind of spread like wildfire online,” said Stephen Vujevica, a student at Immaculata University in Pennsylvania. “It’s amazing to see how social media played a part in it.”
Vujevica was at his girlfriend’s house and both were on their laptops, when she said that many of her friends had updated their Facebook status to note bin Laden’s death in Pakistan. He went to Google News to find out that President Barack Obama had scheduled an address to the nation. He searched other sites to get news and credited Twitter with giving him the most immediate information.
Jaime Aguilar, a Denver musician, was at a friend’s house watching HBO when he saw the news alert on his smartphone.
A soldier who identified himself only as Carlos from Queens called New York sports radio station WFAN Monday to note that he and his buddies in Afghanistan learned the news not from commanding officers, but from Facebook. Angie Scharnhorst of Overland Park, Kan., had an early morning plane flight and if she wasn’t carrying her smartphone while walking her dog Ruby at 2 a.m. CT, said she probably wouldn’t have heard the news until later in the day Monday.
Ashlee Edwards, a content producer for the CBS affiliate WBTW-TV in Myrtle Beach, S.C., was watching “The Tudors” with a friend when she saw Griffin’s tweet urging her to “turn on CNN now” because the president was about to make an announcement.
It was before 10 p.m. ET Sunday that many Washington-based reporters were told to get to work because the president would speak. They were not told why.
At 10:25, Keith Urbahn, the chief of staff for former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tweeted: “So I’m told by a reputable person that they have killed Osama bin Laden. Hot damn.”
The word spread quickly, even as Urbahn subsequently tweeted that he “didn’t know if it’s true, but let’s pray it is.”
Mainstream news organizations began reporting that bin Laden was dead about 15 or 20 minutes later. Some, such as CNN and NBC, were tentative at first. Others, including ABC, were more definitive. Fox News Channel was joyful.
“This is the greatest night of my career,” said Fox’s Geraldo Rivera. “The bum is dead, the savage who hurt us so grievously. I am so blessed, so privileged to be at my desk at this moment.”
The speed of social media struck some as an epochal moment in news coverage. “If anyone isn’t a believer in Twitter as an amazingly powerful news vehicle, last night should convert you,” tweeted Chris Cillizza of the political website The Fix.
Twitter said that it saw its highest sustained rate of tweets. There was an average of 3,440 tweets-per-second from 10:45 p.m. – 12:30 a.m. EST, according to the site. At 11 p.m. EST, there were 5,106 tweets-per-second.
Parody outraced news. Even before CBS had reported bin Laden’s death, a tweet came from Eric Stangel, co-head writer on David Letterman’s “Late Show”: “Report: President Obama to announce Osama bin Laden is dead. I won’t believe it until I see the death certificate.”
Internet traffic surged above normal Sunday night usage. Akamail Technologies Inc., which delivers about 20 percent of the world’s Internet traffic, said that global page views for the roughly 100 news portals for which it delivers content peaked at more than 4.1 million page views around 11 p.m. ET. CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC had nearly 15 million viewers between 11 p.m. and midnight Sunday when Obama spoke, led by CNN’s 7.8 million. That time on a typical Sunday, the three networks are pulling in 1.7 million viewers, according to the Nielsen Co.
At CNN, which reported at 10 p.m. that Obama would speak, it was another 45 minutes until the speech was connected to bin Laden, even as Wolf Blitzer provided some cryptic teases: “I have my suspicion on what the president is going to announce. Probably something we’ve been looking forward to, at least from a U.S. perspective, for quite a while.” CNN’s John King eventually reported the news.
Blitzer conceded Monday that he had a pretty good idea what the news would be when sources assured him that the president’s news was not about Libya.
“I didn’t report it because you don’t report something like that based on a suspicion, based on a hunch, based on your journalistic gut instinct,” Blitzer said. “You’ve got to get confirmation. And you can’t just confirm from one source. You need at least two really excellent sources.”
It’s no longer unusual these days for social media to reflect the first stirrings of a story, said Mark Kraham, chairman of the Radio Television Digital News Association and news director for WHAG-TV in Hagerstown, Md. Yet Kraham said that conventional media showed care and proper caution in reporting the story through. People would have been offended or hurt if news organizations had reported a story of this magnitude and it turned out to be false, he said.
If social media outlets were quick on the story, many posts were quick to point followers to mainstream news organizations, or to pass on links — such as Griffin’s advice to turn on CNN.
Even Urbahn put the brake lights on a rapidly spreading trend: “Stories about ‘the death of (mainstream media)’ because of my first ‘tweet’ are greatly exaggerated,” he tweeted on Monday.
The Newseum, the Washington-based museum devoted to journalism, saw its website crash on Monday because of the crush of people who went to the site to see digital replicas of the front pages from newspapers around the world, a service it has offered since 2002. The site was processing more than 2,800 requests per seconds when it crashed, said Paul Sparrow, senior vice president for broadcasting.
In New York, where nearly 3,000 people died at the World Trade Center, some of those front pages were blunt: “Rot in Hell” was the message on the New York Daily News front page. “U.S. nails the bastard,” the New York Post said on its cover.
Broadcast networks readied special reports on Monday, expanding their evening news broadcasts to an hour to cover the story.
ABC News touted exclusive video of the blood-soaked scene at bin Laden’s compound, obtained through a Pakistani-based producer for the network; ABC would not say how the producer got the footage. On Sunday night, the network had to backtrack from an initial Brian Ross report that bin Laden had been killed several days earlier along with about two dozen other al-Qaida operatives.
Ten years ago Aaron Brown worked all day at CNN, broadcasting from a rooftop with the smoke from the World Trade Center in the background. Many Americans got the terrible news from him that day; now he typifies how news delivery is changing in explaining how he first heard bin Laden was dead.
“I was at dinner here and my phone beeped,” said Brown, who now teaches journalism at Arizona State University in Phoenix.