Journalists mostly suspend skepticism about sourcing with news of Osama bin Laden's death, await photos, video

Most of what President Obama says is questioned by the media and the blogosphere. Obama’s speeches are parsed for factual errors and exaggerated claims, his budget plans are analyzed for over-optimistic predictions and fuzzy math, and – of course – questions about his birth have swirled through cyberspace for years despite evidence debunking the conspiracy theories.

Yet when the President announced that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden, most of the traditional media and online community readily accepted his version of the events.

“The bum is dead,” exclaimed Geraldo Rivera on Fox News as he read the first bulletin about Bin Laden’s demise. “This is the greatest night of my career!”

Many newspapers and websites were only slightly less celebratory as they conveyed the news.  “DEAD,” read the one-word headline on “We got him!” shouted the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Bin Laden dead; USA has body,” declared the Drudge Report.

In this Jan. 18, 2010 file photo provided by the U.S. Navy, the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson maneuvers off the coast of Haiti. Senior U.S. officials said Monday, May 2, 2011 that Osama bin Laden's body was put aboard the USS Carl Vinson and then placed into the North Arabian Sea for burial. (U.S. Navy, Daniel Barker/AP)

None of those news organizations had independent confirmation of bin Laden’s death. All relied on accounts provided by the White House and Pentagon that detailed the firefight in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. But the same journalists who are conditioned to respond skeptically to most Presidential utterances -- and the same bloggers who tend to view each news story through a political prism -- seemed to intrinsically know that Sunday night’s announcement was different.

“There’s a certain test of journalistic faith here,” said former CNN White House Correspondent Charles Bierbauer, now Dean of the University of South Carolina College of Mass Communications and Information Studies.

“When the President of the United States comes out and says Osama bin Laden is dead, it’s such a straight declarative sentence,” Bierbauer said in a phone interview. “There’s no reason for him to say it if there were an iota of uncertainty.”

A handful of media organizations were more cautious about stating bin Laden’s death as a fact, at least in their initial reports Sunday night and Monday morning.

The banner headline in Monday’s New York Times print edition attributed to President Obama the claims that bin Laden had been killed. Stopping short of confirming the terrorist leader’s death, the Times conspicuously noted that he had been “reported dead.”

Other newspapers that sourced the report to the White House included the Gadsen (Ala.) Times, where the page one headline read, “Obama: Bin Laden is dead,” and the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer, which said, “Obama: Bin Laden killed in attack.”

“We got our information through Administration sources and then through the President directly, and that was reflected in our headline,” said New York Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy.

She said the headlines on the Times website eventually became more definitive as editors “became more comfortable” reporting the story without White House attribution.

Fayetteville Observer Executive Editor Mike Arnholt said his headline writers followed the publication’s policy of attributing “almost everything that we write.” But he, too, feels it’s now appropriate to state bin Laden’s death as a fact.

“This thing has the weight of truth,” Arnholt said. “It’s the President of the United States who’s saying it, and no one is disputing it.”

Make that almost nobody.

On the Fayetteville Observer’s own website, several readers posted comments suggesting the reports of bin Laden’s death were untrue.

Where's the body, where at least is a photo (sic),” asked a reader who posts under the name Madd Max. “At a time where President Obama announces his reelection campaign and he has some of the lowest ratings he announces this.”

Similar comments appeared on a variety of news and social networking sites, both in the U.S. and overseas.

While the conspiracy theorists are unlikely to be placated, Bierbauer predicts that journalistic organizations will continue to investigate what happened at the Abbottabad mansion, with a particular eye toward confirming bin Laden’s identity and verifying the official version of events, aspects of which are already being revised.

“What does the DNA show? Why was  the body dumped at sea? Where are the pictures?” asked Bierbauer, noting the kinds of questions journalists have begun to pursue. “You do want greater corroborating evidence.”

The Associated Press reports photos and videos of bin Laden's body and burial may be released, possibly today.


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