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Osama bin Laden’s death is, for Americans and many others around the world, the biggest news since Sept. 11, 2001. So who broke the story?
We could make the case that it was Twitter user Sohaib Athar, a self-described computer consultant who happened to be awake at 1 a.m. Sunday when U.S. military helicopters descended on the terror leader’s hideout, near Athar’s home in Abbottabad, Pakistan. He reported “a huge window shaking bang” and added, “I hope it’s not the start of something nasty.”(1)
American officials later reported that one U.S. helicopter went down during the operation, due to mechanical problems. There were no injuries. Athar was aware of the mishap.
He reported, a few hours after his first message, that “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.” In less than 24 hours, as word spread of bin Laden’s death, Athar realized his life was about to change. “Uh oh, now I’m the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it,” he wrote in Pakistan’s pre-dawn hours Monday, just before President Obama appeared on television to announce the event.
Athar probably does not think of himself as a journalist, and most professional journalists probably don’t consider him one either. As far as we know, he did not race to the scene or start working the phones when he became aware that something big was happening. He just reported it to the world on his Twitter feed. Working journalists would probably liken Athar to the old-fashioned tipster who might phone a newsroom when he noticed something important going on. But as social networking exchanges the newsroom for the entire world, the line between tipster and reporter starts to blur.
A more interesting question than whether Athar can be considered a journalist is why no one inside the world’s major news organizations seems to have been aware of Athar’s reports.
It was Sunday, of course, so a lot of newsrooms were operating on skeleton crews. And in an era when most media companies have greatly scaled back their foreign operations to cut costs, there was little chance of picking up any buzz about a large explosion followed by a military cordon in a provincial city a couple of hours from Pakistan’s capital. At most, it would have looked like just another terrorist attack, perhaps aimed at Pakistan’s military and its training facility in Abbotabad.
There have been many such attacks. But a little checking would have turned up the suspicious facts that the Pakistanis themselves seemed to know little about what had happened, and were saying even less. Nor were there any of the usual claims of responsibility from publicity-seeking terror groups. Nor was there a report from a local hospital about casualties, nor the typical rush of relatives to the scene in search of news about loved ones.