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Amy Gehrt: Social media sparks a news evolution

Amy Gehrt

When reports of Osama bin Laden’s death surfaced May 1, the scoop of the decade came not from a major news organization, but from Twitter.

The tweet in question came from Keith Urbahn, chief of staff for former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who, at 10:24 p.m. EDT, wrote: “So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.”

At the time, Urbahn only had about 1,000 followers (he now has more than 8,100), but word quickly spread throughout the Twitterverse, resulting in an average of 3,000 tweets per second between 10:45 p.m. EDT to 12:20 a.m. — a milestone Twitter hails as the “highest sustained rates of tweets ever.”

Urbahn’s now-famous post is widely credited for breaking the bin Laden news, but it turns out another Twitter user, a man in Abbottabad whose Twitter handle is Really Virtual, actually live-tweeted the raid — although he wasn’t aware of it at the time.

The information superhighway also drove large numbers of people seeking information on bin Laden’s death to search engines — Google announced, via its own Twitter account on May 2, an eye-popping 1 million percent increase in searches for the term “bin Laden” during the night of May 1 — and social networking sites such as Facebook.

However, while the immediacy offered by social media is hard to beat in breaking-news situations, there are few, if any, safeguards in place to ensure erroneous information is not disseminated. Traditional media outlets may lag a bit behind the news cycle at times, but they are also still the best source for those seeking verifiable facts.

Yet even here, social media increasingly plays a role. A study released Monday by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism finds 3 percent of the traffic driven to the 21 news sites that agreed to data-tracking came from Facebook and its 500 million users worldwide. That percentage was double or even triple for a handful of the news organizations.

Study authors attribute this trend to the ease with which users can post links to share with their social networking circles, and the “like” buttons that often appear alongside websites’ content.

“If searching for the news was the most important development of the last decade, sharing the news may be among the most important of the next,” the Pew report said.

It is also important to note, however, that sharing the news is only possible because there are trained journalists and professional news outlets working hard each day to get the latest, most factual information into the hands of the public. So while social media may be playing a key role in the evolution of journalism, I hope people view it as a supplemental, yet still essential, tool in our news-gathering arsenal.

Amy Gehrt may be reached at agehrt@pekin?times.com.