Osama bin Laden death

Study: Celebrities played role in spreading news of bin Laden death

Georgia Institute of Technology | Poynter
A new research paper says celebrities played an important role in spreading the news of Osama bin Laden’s death one year ago tonight. Researchers tracked which accounts were mentioned in tweets about bin Laden and found that there were three distinct patterns. Mentions of “media people” spiked first, but they were soon outpaced by official media accounts. Celebrity mentions grew more slowly, but those figures became dominant as time went on and media mentions declined. “While media people and the mass media compete to be the first to report the news, celebrities use their social influence to help spread the news and stimulate discussions,” researchers conclude.

This graph shows mentions of three user types as news spread of bin Laden’s death on the night of May 1, 2011. (“Breaking News on Twitter,” Mengdie Hu et. al.)
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Study: Twitter users convinced of bin Laden’s death before media, President confirmed it

How did people learn that Osama bin Laden had been killed a year ago? The story is simple: Keith Urbahn, an aide to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “broke” the news on Twitter before any major news outlet reported it, more than an hour before President Barack Obama announced it:

Some people assumed the “reputable person” in Urbahn’s tweet was the former defense secretary himself. But Urbahn later said that a TV news producer, seeking an interview with Rumsfeld, told him that the U.S. may have killed bin Laden. 

In retrospect, Urbahn’s tweet looks less like an instance of breaking news and more like casual conversation. CBS News producer Jill Jackson’s tweet nine minutes later, in which she cited an unnamed House Intelligence Committee aide, appears to be the first to confirm bin Laden’s death.

Jackson may remain a supporting character in media history, however, because Urbahn’s tweet rapidly convinced Twitter users that bin Laden had been killed, according to a new research paper examining how the news spread on Twitter.

In the nine minutes between those two tweets, the percentage of tweets expressing certainty about bin Laden’s death surged. By the time news outlets confirmed bin Laden’s death about 20 minutes after Urbahn’s tweet, 80 percent of Twitter users talking about bin Laden expressed certainty that he was dead.

What made them so sure, so quickly, before the government had announced anything? It was the perceived credibility of Urbahn, whose Twitter bio says that he’s Rumsfeld’s former chief of staff.

Those early Twitter users also were influenced by the credentials of Jackson and New York Times reporter Brian Stelter, who retweeted Jackson and Urbahn.

The study spurs an interesting question: What makes people believe something is true? In this case, the perception of credibility – which can be imparted by a few words in a Twitter bio – rests on new factors rather than traditional ones, like journalistic reporting. As Urbahn shows, someone with impressive credentials can convince people something is true even if he didn’t mean to.

When the audience is more certain than the source

Just a few days after bin Laden’s death, researchers at SocialFlow described the influence of Urbahn’s tweet and Stelter’s role in passing it along. The new study, led by Georgia Tech Ph.D. student Mengdie Hu, carries that forward by assessing Twitter users’ confidence in the early rumors of bin Laden’s death.

The researchers manually classified about 300 tweets according to whether they appeared to be certain that bin Laden had been killed. They used that to train software to analyze about 615,000 tweets, which comprised about 10 percent of all the tweets about bin Laden posted in a two-hour period that night.

At 10:21 p.m., the beginning of the two-hour period they studied, just five percent of tweets that mentioned bin Laden expressed certainty that he was dead, the researchers found. When Urbahn posted his “hot damn” tweet at 10:24 p.m. – followed by Stelter’s tweet about a minute later – that spiked to more than 50 percent.

When Jackson posted her reported confirmation at 10:33 p.m., 60 percent of tweets referring to bin Laden seemed certain that he was dead. That increased to about 80 percent around the time that ABC, CBS and NBC reported bin Laden’s death about 10:45 p.m., according to the study. It rose slightly from there.

This graph shows that tweets expressing certainty about bin Laden death’s spiked after Keith Urbahn’s tweet and before it had been confirmed a CBS News producer. By the time major media outlets reported bin Laden’s death, most people on Twitter already believed it was true.

What does it mean when half of the people talking about a rumor are sure it’s true before there’s a clear reason to believe it? It’s a reminder that people don’t necessarily wait for someone to provide the facts.

“Keith Urbahn tweeted this without really thinking what the consequences could be,” Hu said. “The perceived level of certainty may not reflect the real level of certainty” of a source like Urbahn.

The study doesn’t discount the role of the media, however. Though the people who tweeted about bin Laden’s death in the first few minutes appeared to be quite sure of the rumor, that was a small group compared to the number of people who tweeted about bin Laden’s death after media widely reported the news. That’s when the rate of tweets exploded.

Inferred credibility

Jackson, Urbahn and Stelter were the most-cited users in tweets about bin Laden that were posted between 10:20 and 10:45 p.m., the study notes. Researchers speculate that their professional roles were key in propagating the information across Twitter in such a short time.

It is unlikely that an aide for [former] Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or a CBS News producer would spread groundless rumors of something so important and risk jeopardizing their reputation.

About 30 percent of tweets mentioning Urbahn’s Twitter handle included the word “Rumsfeld”; almost 19 percent of those citing Jackson’s Twitter account mentioned “CBS.”

“These people talking about this news … these are people who we are willing to trust,” Hu said.

But is that trust misplaced? We now know that the source of Urbahn’s credibility was not the source of his information.

Even at the time, he sought to downplay what he had said, tweeting minutes later, “Don’t know if its true, but let’s pray it is,” and urging people to wait to hear the president’s speech.

Urbahn told the New York Observer at the time that he didn’t believe that people relied on his association with Rumsfeld. He said his Twitter account is “very detached from my job … It’s more personal. I don’t see them as linked.”

Hu doesn’t think you can separate the two so easily. “People are using their personal accounts to talk about things,” she said, “and then we associate their personal opinions with their jobs, with their boss.”

Her conclusion challenges journalists’ conception of their “personal” Twitter accounts, which often has a lower threshold of reliability than what they tweet from their employers’ official accounts.

People follow journalists’ personal Twitter accounts because they want to be closer to the source of the information. Some users may be savvy enough to know that the bar is lower than an official news account; others may retweet journalists’ accounts just as they would an official account.

“There was a lot of guessing about bin Laden but no one wanted to say it out loud,” Stelter told the Observer. Urbahn’s tweet “allowed people to take that idea seriously.”

Stelter told me via email Monday that he first saw Urbahn’s tweet without any context tying him to Rumsfeld. He looked at Urbahn’s Twitter profile, Googled him to see if that checked out, and decided to put Urbahn’s statement in front of his 54,000 followers:

Stelter told me what factored into his decision:

I considered the following: his Twitter bio; his number of Twitter followers; his Googleable references; and most importantly, what I tweeted later: that reporters in Washington were hearing whispers about bin Laden.

That’s why I followed up with “The whispers about bin Laden are getting louder in Washington circles. The media is by and large being careful not to jump the gun though.”

The feedback loop

Last May, American Journalism Review editor Rem Reider criticized those who lauded Urbahn for “breaking” the news.

The celebration of Urbahn’s timely tweet sends out precisely the wrong message. It seems to suggest that guessing is good enough, that verification is just so old school, that simply throwing it out there is perfectly fine.

His criticism is well-placed for journalists who use Twitter as a publication platform, but not for the vast majority of users who consider Twitter a conversation platform.

The study hints at a related pitfall: how Twitter can exaggerate the feedback loop between sources and the media.

Consider how the information flowed. A TV producer called an official source to line up an interview, sharing the reason for his request. The official source tweeted what he was told, simply referring to the producer as someone “reputable.” Other media and the public at large saw that tweet as further indication that the rumor of bin Laden’s death was true.

The feedback loop is not new. What is new is that this sort of thing once happened in one-to-one interactions. Now they’re public, where anyone can read them and read into them. (The New York Observer, called Urbahn’s “hot damn” comment a “Rumsfeldian sign-off.”)

But it makes you wonder: Would things have played out differently if Urbahn had said his source was in the media?

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that the 615,000 tweets included in the study comprised 10 percent of all tweets during the two-hour period. The 615,000 tweets were 10 percent of tweets about bin Laden. Read more

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Bin Laden Obama

WH, photographers agree to new plan for shooting presidential speeches

Washington Post
The agreement was hammered out quietly last week between the White House’s press office and the White House Correspondents’ Association, reports Paul Farhi.

News photographers will now be permitted to designate a single representative to act as a “pool” for the entire press corps. The photos taken by the pool representative will be made available to all news organizations. Reporters use a similar pool system for presidential events in which space is limited.

New York Times photographer Doug Mills, who negotiated on behalf of journalists, calls this “an excellent solution” because “we will have still photos taken during the actual address by a news photographer.” Kenny Irby, Poynter’s visual journalism faculty, said two weeks ago that the easiest option would be to move to a single-camera pool. Some photojournalists who spoke with Poynter.org in mid-May said they opposed that approach for still images because it limits photographers’ storytelling options and creativity. The White House decided to stop re-enacting photos for still photographers after AP and Reuters photographers described how the president made his speech about Osama bin Laden’s death to a single TV camera, then pretended to speak for the still cameras. Read more

In this undated image from video seized from the walled compound of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and released Saturday, May 7, 2011 by the U.S. Department of Defense a man, who the American government identified as Osama bin Laden, watches television, showing an image of U.S. President Barack Obama. (AP Photo/Department of Defense)

Television dominant source of news about Osama bin Laden death

While websites and social networking platforms continue to gain influence as news sources, several recent polls suggest traditional media still play an important role in disseminating information about important stories.

Three recent polls asked Americans how they first learned about the killing of Osama bin Laden earlier this month. Overwhelmingly, respondents said they heard about it on television.

“Americans still tremendously value television as a news source,” said Indiana University Telecommunications Professor Walter Gantz. “Television is still the most used medium and the medium people spend the most time with.”

Time of day a key factor

TV’s dominant role as the disseminator of news about bin Laden’s demise came despite the fact that a Twitter user broke the story first. On Sunday night, May 1, former Defense Department official Keith Urbahn tweeted the news a few minutes before mainstream media sources reported it. (Urbahn said he heard the news when a TV producer called him to reach his boss, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.) But the Public Policy Polling survey concluded that only 1 percent of respondents learned of the story from Twitter.

“A big factor was just the time of day that it happened,” said Public Policy Polling director Tom Jensen. “What people do on Sunday nights is watch TV. If this had come out at noon on a Wednesday, the percentage of people getting it on the Internet would be much higher.”

In addition, because the news broke late – after 10:00 p.m. on the east coast – some people didn’t learn about it until they woke up the next morning.

“I’d already gone to bed,” said Jensen, who lives in North Carolina and first heard about the raid when he flipped on the TV Monday morning. “You’re more likely to turn the TV on first thing in the morning than to go look at Twitter or Facebook.”

In this undated image from video seized from the walled compound of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and released Saturday, May 7, 2011 by the U.S. Department of Defense a man, who the American government identified as Osama bin Laden, watches television, showing an image of U.S. President Barack Obama. (AP Photo/Department of Defense)

Other observers note that breaking news coverage is one area where television remains the medium of choice for many Americans. While ratings for the nightly network newscasts are in sharp decline, and a growing number of Americans say they get their everyday news online, viewers still typically rely on TV for watching live events or fast-breaking stories.

“Certain stories are TV stories,” said Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. “A presidential speech or an inauguration or a presidential debate is an event that’s suited to absorbing live.”

In that respect, a big part of television’s strength is simply its convenience and prominence in the typical household. Many news consumers often find it easier to switch on the TV than to find and stream online video of a live event.

And stories such as bin Laden’s death, the 9/11 attacks, or even the Royal Wedding are momentous enough to lend themselves to a “gather around the set” moment, an experience that’s hard to replicate with a computer monitor or smartphone.

“When the planes hit the towers on 9/11, people turned on their television set,” Rosenstiel said. “It was visceral and you watched it.”

Web, TV can co-exist

None of these findings discount the increasing role of the Web and social networking sites as news sources. CNN – citing statistics from Akamai Technologies — reported that page views on major news sites increased more than 60 percent in the hour after news broke of bin Laden’s death, totaling more than 4.1 million views per second.

Meanwhile, the Pew study that measured respondents’ main source for bin Laden news contained a telling demographic distinction:  While TV enjoyed a 35 percentage point preference over the Internet among everybody polled, the difference was only 7 percent for respondents under age 30.

Still, the audience behavior underscores the fact that people often use new forms of media as supplements to old ones, not as replacements – a straightforward point that’s sometimes overlooked in media analysis.

Television and the Internet are especially well-suited to co-exist, with almost 60 percent of TV viewers now saying they surf the Web and watch TV simultaneously at least once a month.

“Media tend not to vanish as much as they shove over and make room for the new,” Rosenstiel said. “Each medium tends to have certain things that it is particularly good at.” Read more

Staff are seen at work at President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign headquarters during a media tour of the new facility Thursday, May 12, 2011, in Chicago. (M. Spencer Green/AP)

Horse race overtakes history in political coverage of Osama bin Laden death

President Obama had not yet officially announced the death of Osama bin Laden before bloggers and pundits began speculating about its impact on the 2012 election.

“The news that Osama bin Laden has been killed — on Obama’s watch — is most definitely a political game-changer,” NBC’s Mark Murray wrote on the network’s “First Read” blog at 11:23 p.m. Eastern time May 1. That was shortly after reporters learned of bin Laden’s death, but 12 minutes before the President began delivering his nationally televised address.

Throughout the early-morning hours after the speech, the online political debate roared into full swing.

The President “is going to be almost impossible to beat in 2012,” the Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan predicted at 12:21 a.m.

“If unemployment remains high and the recovery remains weak, Obama could absolutely lose in 2012,” countered Scott Lemieux at the American Prospect twenty-five minutes later.

Before the sun came up the next morning, writers at The New York Times, The Washington Post, the New Republic, and several other media organizations all had weighed in.

Discussion forums at liberal and conservative websites buzzed with comments on how the Pakistani raid would affect voters 18 months later. While journalists and bloggers also wrote about other aspects of the Abbottabad raid — such as its impact on U.S. policy and the future of al-Qaida — a good chunk of the coverage was cast around familiar questions about politicians’ poll numbers and which political party deserved more credit.

“Pretty much all that I do has to do with politics and the permanent campaign,” NBC’s Murray told me in a phone interview.

“Because I’m a political reporter, I thought it was important to at least have a snapshot of what the political dynamics could be after such a big news event.”

But as their disparate views prove, it’s hard for even the most insightful prognosticator to draw concrete political conclusions about a momentous event that’s just begun to unfold.

Staff are seen at work at President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign headquarters during a media tour of the new facility Thursday, May 12, 2011, in Chicago. (M. Spencer Green/AP)

When they made their initial predictions, the pundits didn’t anticipate the controversy over the non-release of bin Laden photos, the partisan criticism of President Obama’s trip to ground zero, or the confusion about the Administration’s changing account of the firefight.

And the immediate recasting of the news as a political horse-race story may have diverted attention from arguably more important angles.

“There is a certain lack of seriousness about a great deal of coverage of events in the world,” said Hodding Carter, a veteran journalist who served as State Department spokesman in Jimmy Carter’s administration. “It’s almost all now a tallying of wins and losses for the players. It’s the eternal quest for the ultimate political take.”

“The media world we live in”

According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, bin Laden’s death sparked more stories in the mainstream media than any topic since the center began tracking news coverage more than three years ago. Of the bin Laden stories that were published or broadcast in the week after the raid, Pew found that 15 percent centered on its political fallout.

That’s less than the 36 percent of coverage that detailed the events of the military mission, but more than the amount of coverage of such issues as its effect on U.S./Pakistani relations and terrorism.

Pew also reported that 14 percent of the coverage on blogs concerned one question: whether President Obama or President George W. Bush deserved more credit.

“That’s the media world we live in,” said Bill Hamilton, a deputy managing editor at Politico. “Everything the president does is seen in this kind of polarized context.”

In a phone interview, Hamilton said Politico’s staff writers waited 24 hours after the raid before publishing election-themed analysis, though the website allowed its users and commentators to post observations and predictions instantly as bin Laden’s death became known.

Hamilton described today’s media environment as “totally different” from when he began his journalism career more than three decades ago. In that era, a popular Washington axiom was that “politics stops at the water’s edge” – a belief that it was unseemly to view military or foreign policy matters through a partisan lens.

So in April 1980, when Jimmy Carter ordered a military rescue mission of the American hostages in Iran, the political reaction was muted, even when the mission failed in spectacular fashion and left eight service members dead.

Though President Carter considered the bungled rescue a major factor in his election loss to Ronald Reagan seven months later, a Lexis/Nexis search found few political overtones in the immediate coverage of the event.

“We support the president in seeking to save the hostages, and we deeply regret that this mission failed,” Reagan said on the campaign trail.

ABC’s evening newscast following the mission contained just one sentence on the electoral implications: “White House aides are painfully aware that the failure may very well have added to Mr. Carter’s deepening political troubles,” Sam Donaldson understatedly reported.

To be sure, there’s an important difference between the Iranian military mission and the recent one in Pakistan. One was an embarrassing failure that led to mournful national uncertainty; the other was a stunning success that sparked patriotic jubilation. And the political damage from the 1980 debacle was so obvious that it was almost unnecessary to dwell on it.

Still, Hodding Carter said he’s seen a transformation in the way the media and the blogosphere frame such events.

“There was a certain amount of restraint with how you dealt with commentary and coverage of our business overseas,” said Carter, now a professor at the University of North Carolina. “The boundary is really gone and this is a reflection of it.”

Internet removes filters, ramps up reaction time

While some journalists and bloggers concede the boundaries have changed, they also argue that today’s politics-driven news coverage in many ways more accurately reflects a Washington culture where polling, fundraising and campaigning never stop.

“Presidents are creatures of politics,” said Democratic strategist Garry South, who frequently contributes commentaries to Politico, Huffington Post, and other websites. “They take into consideration the political upside and downside of all their actions.”

Indeed, historic accounts show that even 50 years ago, President Kennedy was gravely concerned about his political standing and popularity in the days immediately after the Bay of Pigs invasion. And Hodding Carter recalls that the political fallout from the Iranian rescue mission was “subtext for everybody” in Jimmy Carter’s White House.

For strategist South, the biggest change is that the Internet has removed the traditional filters and allowed the public to immediately see and participate in Washington’s constant political posturing.

“I can opine on anything in a matter of milliseconds,” South said in a phone interview. Only minutes after he learned of bin Laden’s death, South posted at Politico that “it could mean the end of the 2012 campaign.”

“We’re now in a ramped-up environment in terms of the news cycle,” South said.  “Are we better off because of it? Probably not. But I’m part of it.”

Of course, despite South’s prognostication, the 2012 campaign continues — largely unabated by events overseas. As Americans’ attention has started to drift away from the Navy SEALs’ heroics, one prominent Republican has entered the presidential race, another has decided not to, and President Obama’s popularity either has remained flat, gone up a little, or gone up a lot — depending upon which polls you believe. Much of the on-the-fly post-raid punditry already has lost its relevance.

Perhaps that’s the most disturbing consequence of the tendency toward instant and constant politicization. Osama bin Laden’s death is a complex event that served as a milestone in the war on terror, raised crucial policy issues for the U.S. and its allies, inspired elation in some Americans, and brought painful memories to others. Yet, in many quarters, it’s been reduced to just another lap in the political horse race. Read more

Photographers take pictures of U.S. President Barack Obama after he announced live on television the death of Osama bin Laden from the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., May 1, 2011. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Photographers debate what should replace staged photo opps now that White House is ending the practice

Calling it a “bad idea,” the White House has decided that it will no longer re-enact speeches for still photographers, as it did the night President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden. That re-enactment was the subject of a Poynter.org story that sparked industry conversation about the ethics of staging photos, particularly one of such a historic event.

Photographers take pictures of U.S. President Barack Obama after he announced live on television the death of Osama bin Laden from the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., May 1, 2011. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

On May 1, continuing a practice in place for decades, the White House barred still photographers from photographing the live presidential address because of the disruption the still cameras would cause. After the speech, President Barack Obama walked down the hallway toward the microphones for a second time and spoke for a few minutes, just so still photographers could capture what they missed.

Photojournalists defended the practice to Poynter.org, in part because captions disclosed that the photos were not taken during the live speech. But the captions weren’t all that clear that the photos were staged, and our audit found that in many cases those captions didn’t run with the photos.

The question now is what will take the place of the re-enactments. Kenny Irby, Poynter’s visual journalism faculty, said the easiest option would be to move to a single-camera pool. That means one photographer, from a select group of news outlets, would document the event, and those images would be shared with all the news outlets that cover the White House. The easiest option, though, is not the most inclusive, Irby said.

Photojournalists who spoke with Poynter.org on Thursday evening oppose that approach for still images, saying it limits photographers’ storytelling options and creativity.

If the White House moves to a pool, said Doug Mills, White House photographer for The New York Times, “we are taking one step forward — we get live coverage — and four steps backward — we will lose four photographers from the room. “

He continued, “We clearly lose out in terms of perspective. There will be no wide shots or risk-taking, for that matter.”

A meeting is scheduled for next week between the White House and the White House Correspondents’ Association to discuss a new approach. Mills is the representative to that group, which is separate from the White House News Photographers Association.

Photojournalists lobby for more access

Photojournalists who spoke with Poynter on Thursday night expressed concern that a new arrangement might be even more restrictive, forcing them to become more reliant on pool photos or worse, photos supplied by the White House.

“Any decision that leads to greater transparency is a good decision,” said Santiago Lyon, director of photography for the Associated Press. “What remains to be seen is what level of access we will have.”

The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), along with the White House News Photographers Association, has complained about access to presidential events before. Sean Elliot, NPPA president, said the Obama administration has a history of “pushing the press to take handouts from the White House photo staff.”

“The simple reality,” Elliot said, “is that the official White House photographer is a staffer and any photos they produce are essentially PR photos. Coverage of the White House and of our government need to be done by an independent press — not by handouts.”

A technological solution?

Harry Walker, director of McClatchy-Tribune Photo Service, thinks there are alternatives to going to a single-camera pool or using handout photos. Still photographers could use blimps (cases that help to quiet the noise of SLR cameras) or set up farther back with long lenses so the photographers don’t ruin the live event with their actions or mistakes, such as dropping a camera. (An NPPA story on the White House decision describes one such incident that happened this week in Austin.)

A couple of weeks ago, Walker said, he saw plenty of great images of the royal wedding that were documented with long lenses. “I think we know that everyone can pull back 20 or 30 feet and still get a very good image, both video and stills.”

Other possibilities include using “frame grabs” from the high-definition television feed, but wire services resist this because, they say, the frame grabs would not be of high enough quality.

Another option: using a still camera with the mirror “locked up,” so the camera can operate almost silently. One of the official White House staff photographers captured still images during the president’s speech this way, according to a story by Don Winslow on the NPPA website.

NPPA’s Elliot says without a doubt, the technology exists to quiet cameras that would allow photojournalists to do their job without interrupting a speech. “Still cameras have been working on movie sets for decades,” he said. “It is about time for this staging to end. Arguably there have not been enough protests to this for a long time.”

Pool photography limits competition

And while television often uses a pool camera — and did that night — Elliot opposes pools for still photojournalists. “Pool situations often don’t work because of the competitive nature of the industry,” he said, and because multiple still photographers can capture different angles and elements of a news event.

The competition that photojournalists spoke of is journalistic, but it’s also financial. The few news organizations that got access to the re-enactment on May 1 are part of the so-called “tight pool,” which has five slots: AP, Reuters, AFP/Getty (the two have a partnership), The New York Times, and a rotating independent photographer. These news organizations commit to covering the White House at all times, at great expense. They have access to scenes that others don’t. And they can sell and distribute those images.

A single-camera pool “limits the amount of images and competition,” Mills said. He said he would fight to prevent this from becoming the “precedent for other sensitive and intimate situations.”

If the White House moves to a single-camera pool, that could mean that the photographer who captures a particular news event will have to share those images with all members of the White House press corps. Any of those news outlets could use and sell the images, which decreases the benefit for the few that follow the president’s every move.

It’s also possible that the five members of the “tight pool” could come up with an agreement with the White House that enables them to share images only with each other. “It is not fair [that] the people who don’t commit to covering the White House consistently will be able to sell those pictures via the pool,” Mills said.

Donald Winslow, editor of NPPA’s News Photographer magazine, told Poynter.org that he believes wire services’ resistance to a pool approach is less about journalism than it is about competition and ownership of content.

“Is this really about the principle of having an independent journalist in the room?” he asked. “Because if it is, a pool journalist is acceptable and ethical. If they want an AP byline in the room, a Reuters byline in the room, an AFP byline in the room, then that’s about pride – and it’s not about principle. Pride or profit?”

Al Tompkins, Poynter’s senior faculty for broadcast and online, interviewed Sean Elliot for this story. Kenny Irby, Poynter’s senior faculty for visual journalism and diversity, interviewed Doug Mills and Santiago Lyon. Steve Myers, managing editor of Poynter.org, interviewed Harry Walker and Don Winslow. Read more


How AP covered ‘The Taking of Osama bin Laden’

Romenesko Misc.
AP senior managing editor Michael Oreskes says “the scene was like something from a Hollywood blockbuster.”

Two ace reporters huddle in a taxi cab, racing off to mine separate sources for details of this most extraordinary of stories. A cell phone rings. On the other end is yet another source, calling back with an exceptional detail — the name of the courier who inadvertently led the U.S. to the world’s most-wanted man. This is huge. But it’s not quite enough confirmation. So the reporters split up and call more sources. And they nail it. They head to a public Wi-Fi spot to file.

Oreskes says “for their outstanding journalism and helping the AP shine on this remarkable story,” Matt Apuzzo, Kim Dozier, Adam Goldman, Eileen Sullivan, Abdul Rehman Achakzai and Julie Pace win this week’s AP “Beat of the Week” award and its $500 prize. || Read the memo. Read more

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AP editor: It’s our job to seek evidence taken in raid on bin Laden compound

The Atlantic Wire | National Press Photographers Association

The Associated Press has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the photographic and video evidence taken during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, explaining that it would like to see the material and compare it with other things that the public is being told about the raid both by U.S. officials and officials in other countries. AP senior managing editor Michael Oreskes says:

We’re not deciding in advance to publish this material. We would like our journalists, who are working very hard, to see this material and then we’ll decide what’s publishable and what’s not publishable based on the possibly that it’s inflammatory.

In the week since the raid there’s been a whole series of story-lines about what happened in this raid. At this point, anything that might shed more light on what occurred is potentially quite newsworthy. So we would like this imagery to fully understand what happened during this event.

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Steve Kroft explains why he broke interviewing rules when questioning Obama about bin Laden death for ’60 Minutes’

When Steve Kroft interviewed President Obama last week about the raid on Osama bin Laden’s headquarters in Pakistan, the “60 Minutes” veteran violated many of the guidelines that we teach about how to conduct an interview. And it worked.

Why? Kroft kept the questions short and constantly mixed up the types of questions he asked to alternately seek facts, emotion and insight.

Kroft told me that when he sat down with the President, he had, in his hands, a list of 62 questions that he might ask. “We wanted to do the interview in three sections; the raid and the planning, the Situation Room and Pakistan. I knew I was not going to get through all of the questions,” Kroft told me by phone on Monday.

I teach journalists that there are three kinds of questions:

  • The Objective (or Closed-Ended) Question: This type of question usually results in a “yes” or “no” answer. The objective question is used when you are searching for facts not opinions. Sometimes the objective question poses a choice, such as, “Do you mean X or do you mean Y?” The objective question seldom is the type that journalists use to elicit memorable quotes or soundbites.
  • The Subjective (or Open-Ended) Question: This type of question seeks a thought, opinion, feeling or emotion. The question often begins with word “how” or “why.” This question is the one that produces the most memorable soundbites.
  • The Non-Question Question: Kroft sometimes repeats words that the President just said as a way of asking for clarity or emphasis. This is more of a statement than a question. The non-question question is a signal to the subject to keep going, similar to saying, “That is really interesting, tell us more about that.”

Kroft told me “there were almost no outtakes from this interview. We aired almost everything we shot. We only cut out five minutes, not even that much, in editing.”

He said he consulted with others before drafting a list of questions. Then “I got up at 5 o’clock Wednesday morning and went through all of them again. I was very cognizant of eliminating questions that would lead to long answers.”

How the interview progressed

The story opened quickly, assuming any reasonable person watching would be familiar with the basic facts of bin Laden’s death. That was a great decision.

Kroft gets right to the interview with, interestingly, an objective (or closed-ended) question. Not what journalists might expect.

STEVE KROFT: Mr. President, was this the most satisfying week of your presidency?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, it was certainly one of the most satisfying weeks not only for my presidency but I think for the United States since I’ve been president. Obviously, bin Laden had been not only a symbol of terrorism but a mass murderer who had eluded justice for so long and so many families who have been affected I think had given up hope. And for us to be able to definitively say, “We got the man who caused thousands of deaths here in the United States” was something that I think all of us were profoundly grateful to be a part of.

I would have expected a subjective question to work best at the beginning of the interview. I might have asked the question, “How satisfying was this week?” But Kroft’s question was better than mine. His question would reveal any hint of gloating.

Kroft told me he carefully chose the word “satisfied” for the first question. “I played around with a couple of other words — ‘happy’ for example, but it brought up ‘celebration,’ which didn’t seem right to me, so I settled on ‘satisfying.’ ”

Kroft’s second question was also closed-ended:

KROFT: Was the decision to launch this attack the most difficult decision that you’ve made as Commander-In-Chief?

Kroft is aware he used a lot of closed-ended questions, and he did it on purpose because of time pressures and because of how this President answers questions.

“I have interviewed him before and you don’t want to ask him open-ended questions — you get long answers,” he said.

Kroft explained, “It is difficult to interrupt the President — it is not something I particularly like to do. The thing about this president is he will give you his thought process if you ask him about it. He will explain the complexities that weigh on his mind.”

A little later, Kroft asked a “double-barreled” question, two questions at once that can allow the interviewee to escape the first question and choose the second one.

KROFT: How much of it was gut instinct? Did you have personal feelings about whether… he was there?

Notice that the first part of that question, the subjective part, produced a quote, a soundbite when the President responded:

OBAMA: The thing about gut instinct is if it works, then you think, “Boy, I had good instincts.” If it doesn’t, then you’re gonna be running back in your mind all the things that told you maybe you shouldn’t have done it. Obviously I had enough of an instinct that we could be right, that it was worth doing.

Kroft used several other double-barreled questions, some a bit indirect that could have been more direct:

KROFT: When the CIA first brought this information to you…

OBAMA: Right.

KROFT: …what was your reaction? Was there a sense of excitement? Did this look promising from the very beginning?

The last part of the question is the useful part. I would have asked it as a closed-ended question, “When the CIA first approached you with information, how promising did that information seem to be?”

Then, I would have followed up with, “What was your reaction when you saw what the CIA had?”

Here is another example of how a double-barreled question allowed the President to escape without a direct answer. Kroft asked:

KROFT: Did you have to suppress the urge to tell someone? Did you wanna tell somebody? Did you wanna tell Michelle? Did you tell Michelle?

But the President never said whether he told his wife. The President chose to respond to the first question over the more interesting last one, a danger when asking multiple questions at once.

Kroft followed with single, direct questions, all in the perfect order to build our understanding of the sequence of events:

KROFT: When was that when you set that plan in motion?

KROFT: How actively where you involved in that process?

KROFT: Were you surprised when they came to you with this compound right in the middle of sort of the military center of Pakistan?

The objective questions were the right tool because Kroft was trying to get facts, not opinions, in this part of the interview. This information will not generate a quote or soundbite in anybody’s story but will be important copy or narrative text:

KROFT: Do you have any idea how long he was there?

OBAMA: We know he was there at least five years.

KROFT: Five years?

OBAMA: Yeah.

The value of short questions

Even when he asks double-barreled questions, Kroft’s questions are short, 15 words or less.

That brevity makes this interview so watchable.

“I probably wrote the questions longer, but the good thing about writing your own questions is you know the material,” Kroft told me. “I had to keep moving. I was so cognizant of the clock.”

Kroft also know the interview is not about him. Less confident interviewers have a habit of asking long-winded questions to make themselves look informed and commanding. Kroft is authoritative.

Look at this quick, open-ended question that produced an answer which made its way into newscasts around the world.

KROFT: This was your decision whether to proceed or not and how to proceed. What was the most difficult part of that decision?

OBAMA: The most difficult part is always the fact that you’re sending guys into harm’s way. And there are a lot of things that could go wrong. I mean there’re a lot of moving parts here. So my biggest concern was if I’m sending those guys in and Murphy’s Law applies and somethin’ happens, can we still get our guys out?

So that’s point number one. These guys are going in, you know, the darkness of night. And they don’t know what they’re gonna find there. They don’t know if the building is rigged. They don’t know if, you know, there are explosives that are triggered by a particular door opening. So huge risks that these guys are taking. And so my number one concern was, if I send them in, can I get them out?

Not every question is perfect. This one missed the mark:

KROFT: It’s been reported that there was some resistance from advisors and planners who disagreed with the commando raid approach. Was it difficult for you to overcome that?

Of course, the President is going to say “no.” Anything but a “no” would make him look like he has a divided circle of advisors.

A different closed-ended question might have elicited better information, like “What did you say to your closest advisors who told you they didn’t want you to approve this raid?” Or an open-ended question could have worked: “Your closest advisors were reported to be divided about this raid. How important was it to have unanimous agreement on something so important?”

Kroft asked a great question about how past failures shaped this mission but without providing long background in the question.

KROFT: How much did some of the past failures, like the Iran hostage rescue attempt, how did that weigh on you?

He had to assume that people watching this interview knew something about history. It could be a risky assumption, in some cases, so journalists have to know their audiences.

By using short, punchy questions, Kroft added an urgency to the part of the interview where the President talks about watching and listening to the actual raid. Look at the length of these questions:

KROFT: I want to go to the Situation Room. What was the mood?

KROFT: Were you nervous?

KROFT: What could you see?

KROFT: Right. And that went on for a long time? Could you hear gunfire?

KROFT: Flashes?

A nice mixture of objective and subjective questions, facts and feelings. About the release of those bin Laden death photos, Kroft didn’t re-state the debate. He just asked the question that people wanted answered:

KROFT: Why haven’t you released them?

Later, Kroft tried a non-question question.

KROFT: There are people in Pakistan, for example, who say, “Look, this is all a lie. This is another American trick. Osama’s not dead.”

Kroft needed to gather another fact about the burial. So he used a closed-ended question:

KROFT: Was it your decision to bury him at sea?

One of Kroft’s craftiest questions came late in the piece. It sounds innocent enough, but the answer could have generated headlines:

KROFT: Is this the first time that you’ve ever ordered someone killed?

The direct question gets at a key issue about the raid, was this a “kill mission” or could it have been a “capture mission”? It was the most sobering moment of the piece, set up by a simply worded question.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, keep in mind that, you know, every time I make a decision about launching a missile, every time I make a decision about sending troops into battle, you know, I understand that this will result in people being killed. And that is a sobering fact. But it is one that comes with the job.

While I spend a lot of time talking with journalists about how they open their stories, the “60 Minutes” interview is more remarkable for the way the piece ended.

Kroft moved toward the final soundbite with a statement, so the President was not backed into a corner and offered a remarkable ending:

KROFT: This was one man. This is somebody who has cast a shadow, has been cast a shadow in this place, in the White House for almost…a decade.

OBAMA: As nervous as I was about this whole process, the one thing I didn’t lose sleep over was the possibility of taking bin Laden out. Justice was done. And I think that anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn’t deserve what he got needs to have their head examined.

“We put that at the end because I thought it had a real sense of finality. I thought it was the strongest answer,” Kroft told me. “I was interested in whether he had moral thoughts about it.”

Again, the subjective answer proves to be the most memorable answer in the interview.

The “60 Minutes” interview was laser-focused. Kroft didn’t swerve off into politics and only lightly treaded into international affairs regarding Pakistan. Those issues will find their place in other shows at other times. This interview was about the decision-making process that led to an historic capture.

Nearly 14 million people tuned in as the interview began, (even more viewers watched the second half of the interview), making “60 Minutes” the most watched program of the night.

CBS and Kroft proved that skill can turn a straightforward interview with a politician into great TV if you ask the right questions and let the person answer. Read more


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