Who Really Broke the Story About the Death of Osama bin Laden

The news of the death of Osama bin Laden was yet another major news story that was not broken by traditional media. Others include the death of Michael Jackson and the  10 January 2010 7.0 earthquake in Haiti. I received a tweet from a journalist friend in Washington that said “POTUS to address the nation tonight at 10:30 PM Eastern Time.” Immediately Twitter traffic increased and speculation grew that perhaps U.S. officials had killed Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, Bin Laden or any number of other “national security” targets.

But while the President was still writing his speech, Keith Urbahn, the chief of staff for the former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, sent a tweet saying, “So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.” Mr. Urbahn quickly added, “Don’t know if it’s true, but let’s pray it is.”

He was credited by many on the Web with breaking the news, though he did not have first-hand confirmation. Shortly after the tweet, anonymous sources in Washington began telling reporters the same information, according to the Times. At 10:45 p.m. Eastern Time, the major television networks interrupted their programming to report the news.

Interestingly, while Urbahn’s tweet had the credibility because of his position, it wasn’t the first Twitter account to actually break the news. That honor goes to an IT consultant who identifies himself as Sohaib Athar under the Twitter handle “ReallyVirtual.” Some hours earlier, Athar began live-tweeting the attack from Abbottabad, the town where bin Laden was killed. “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event),” he tweeted. That would have been at about 3:30 p.m. ET on Sunday. He continued tweeting about the operation, having no idea about its significance.

  • “Go away helicopter – before I take out my giant swatter :-/”
  • “A huge window shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt. I hope its not the start of something nasty :-S”.
  • After the president’s announcement: “Uh oh, now I’m the guy who live blogged the Osama raid without knowing it.”
  • “For the people who are trying to email me to reach me, I simply can’t filter out the notifications from the emails 🙁 “

Some are calling this a major turning point for Social Networking tools. “Tonight’s news was by far the weightiest story that Twitter has ever helped break,” wrote CNET’s  Greg Sandoval. Twitter reported more than 4,000 tweets per second but this is by no means the biggest number of tweets per second. That goes to New Year’s Eve in Japan where 6,339 Tweets per second were sent.

Sadly most radio stations missed the breaking story because the lights off and the doors locked and the content being broadcast was voice-tracked many hours before. Hopefully today we all managed to play catch-up, but for the majority of listeners waking up this morning they would hear or see the story for the first time and not be aware of how the story broke and probably not even care.