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The Future of Journalism: Visualizing the Spread of Osama bin Laden’s Death on Twitter

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There has been a lively back-and-forth among journalists this past week as to whether the dissemination of the news of Osama bin Laden’s death via Twitter does or does not constitute journalism.

But those arguments largely miss the boat over Twitter’s role in the journalism landscape. Twitter is an amplifier, a spreader of news. It is the modern day wire service or telegraph. Looking at the spread of Osama bin Laden’s death is itself rather intriguing.  What follows says a lot about how Twitter works in conjunction with journalism outlets, and how people communicate with one another about major news.

SocialFlow, a social media optimization company, analyzed 14.8 million Tweets sent in the hours after bin Laden’s death and found “that the Tweet by Rumsfeld chief of staff Keith Urbahn that got the ball rolling was retweeted more than 80 times within one minute after it was sent, and that by the 3-minute mark, it had led to more than 300 reactions,” reports Geekosystem.

At the time, Urbahn only had about 1,000 followers on Twitter, but as you can see, the news just spreads from one pocket to another, further penetrating as various influential accounts picked up the news. It wasn’t so much Urbahn that helped spread this news like an infectious disease, it was the secondary accounts like Laughing Squid or Andy Levy or Obama News that pushed it out to their followers.

What’s also interesting to point out, however, is that even though it seems like Twitter “broke” this story (and perhaps lots of Twitter-users and certainly Twitter themselves have a vested interest in pushing that narrative) it wasn’t until President Obama’s televised announcement that tweets on “Osama bin Laden” outpaced those for Libyan leader “Moammar Gaddafi.”

This suggests, at least in part, that even though lots of people first heard the news on Twitter, it wasn’t until the televised announcement that boosted Twitter’s number of Osama bin Laden tweets. It’s a chicken and egg scenario because the news started on Twitter, but it didn’t really reach critical mass until President Obama’s appearance on television.

The question in all of this is not whether or not Twitter constitutes journalism, but how Twitter can help journalists and journalism outlets supplement what they are already doing. Certainly, Twitter has proven itself adept at breaking news stories, which is one facet of journalism, but just as important is the context surrounding that breaking news.

Imagine if journalism organizations used Twitter and other social media tools like Facebook to break news and then only used their print publications — yes, both the dead tree variety and the digital one — to push deep contextual analysis of that news?

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