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Tweeting Osama’s death: The accidental citizen journalist

Osama bin Laden's Compound

By Doug Gross

AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) — Sohaib Athar was a 33-year-old IT consultant living in Abbottabad, Pakistan, last year when he settled in around midnight to get some work done.

Then, something unusual happened in his quiet town. And, as many of us do, he took to Twitter to share.

“Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event),” he wrote.

Unbeknownst to him, Athar was stepping into one of the year’s biggest news stories: the U.S. military operation that killed notorious terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. In the days that followed, he’d become “the man who live-tweeted Osama’s death.”

At the South by Southwest Interactive festival here on Saturday, Athar discussed that night, as well as how it thrust him into the still-emerging role of “citizen journalist.”

So, does posting on Twitter about a big event really make someone a journalist? Athar says yes — even if he didn’t think so at the time.

“The people who were talking, we were just trying to reverse-engineer what could have happened,” he said. “The media was not there at the time … .

“We were just trying to see what could have happened because we knew the official story would probably not be the whole truth.”

Athar’s tweets may have been the first public account of the nighttime raid by the now-famous SEAL Team Six that killed bin Laden at his secret compound.

But the significance of his posts wouldn’t become clear until hours later, when President Barack Obama called a rare evening press conference to announce the news.

In posts sometimes sprinkled with humor (“Go away helicopter – before I take out my giant swatter”), Athar’s tweets evolved that night from his observations to messaging with a handful of other Pakistanis in Abbottabad and elsewhere to get to the bottom of things.

And that, said Steve Myers, who studies media trends with the Poynter Institute, is what made him a journalist.

“Some people say tweeting about a helicopter doesn’t make you a journalist and I would agree with that,” said Myers, who shared Saturday’s discussion with Athar. “But the things he did next — I think he acted very much in that way.”

Those things included photographing bin Laden’s compound, about a mile from Athar’s home, the following day and conducting his own interviews with neighbors about their experiences living there.

In an era when mobile-phone owners walk around with a video camera in their pocket at all times and tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube make broadcasting the results quick and simple, people like Athar can turn into journalists without even knowing it, Myers said.

Some critics of the concept of citizen journalism note that non-professionals aren’t trained to properly filter and communicate news — that we wouldn’t trust a “citizen doctor.” But Myers notes that, in the case of accidents or emergencies, we do just that.

“It’s ‘first-aid journalism’ or ‘first-responder’ journalism,” he said. “Later, they’re going to hand it off to someone who has a more developed skill set, but they are similar skill sets.”

In the days that followed his soon-famous tweets, Athar got a look at the inner workings of parts of more mainstream journalism, and wasn’t always impressed. He was pressured to do exclusive interviews (about information he shared on Twitter with the world, he noted), offered money for his story and watched as some international journalists painted what he said was an inaccurate picture of Abbottabad by only focusing on poverty-stricken areas and conservative Muslims there.

One tangible result of his brief fling with spotlight? The 750 or so Twitter followers he had the day before the raid swelled to about 105,000 — before eventually settling in at around 70,000.

The urge to become an international news source, though, has not been strong.

“I think I only wore the hat of journalism for a few days,” he said. “And then I took it off.”

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