The Good, the Tasteless, and the Ugly of Reporting bin Laden’s Death

Like 31% of the 20,000 respondents to a Mashable poll, I learned of Osama bin Laden’s death through Twitter at least one hour before President Obama made the official announcement.

What ensued invoked mixed emotions, so after digesting a few minutes of speculation, typos and “jump the gun” reporting on the news networks,  I went to bed figuring I’d wait until the dust settled in the morning to get more accurate reporting.

When I woke, I found that Americans continued trends that have been characteristic of our nation since the 9/11 attacks (and probably before) by producing a range of reactions and showed the best and worst we have to offer.


Some took to the streets with celebratory chanting, some released a solemn sigh of relief and took time to reflect. Facebook and Twitter were filled with people’s reactions, with a spectrum best represented by two false quotes that became pervasive. I was guilty of tweeting what I thought was a Mark Twain quote from a friend on Facebook — “I’ve never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.” — only to have someone point out that it was a variation of a quote by Clarence Darrow. Words attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. similarly were posted all over Facebook that too turned out to be a fake.

The Good…

This photo saw 600k views in the first hour 13,000 per minute,

The historic news of Osama bin Laden’s death demonstrated what can be amazing about communications and what can be questionable at best. Not only did Twitter and Facebook scoop the traditional media, social media helped tell the story through official channels such as the White House Flickr stream. As the story developed, it turns out that a Pakistani IT consultant unsuspectingly live tweeted the capture as it happened.

…the Tasteless…

While checking Twitter at lunch, I started to see the unsavory side of the story, starting with a tweet by the Cooking Channel:

For some reason, using the death of one of the worst terrorists in history to drive traffic to your web page for cookie recipes seemed questionable to me. Cooking Channel was not alone, as the Old Navy in Wilmington NC used the opportunity to sell t-shirts:

Of course this trend could be found on Facebook as well, including a pizza shop in Georgia:

…and the Ugly

Then there was criminal side of the bin Laden story and the media. Scammers wasted no time to come up with ways of redirecting people from Google Images to sites that would infect their computers with malware and a “death video” scam to gain access to Facebook users’ contacts and collect money.

The Bottom Line

When crafting a communications strategy, I always advise looking for ways to be topical and relevant. Being part of the news cycle rather than being overtaken by it is always smart, but it comes with the responsibility of discretion.

While none of the “bad” examples rise to the level of the Kenneth Cole tweet about the uprisings in Cairo, I question their appropriateness. As communicators, we cannot bemoan the labels of flacks, shills and ambulance chasers if we engage in this sort of behavior or condone it.

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8 Responses to The Good, the Tasteless, and the Ugly of Reporting bin Laden’s Death

  1. Kristen says:

    I found the quote from Martin Luther King Jr. to be really interesting. It originated with a teacher stating her opinion, followed by a quote by MLK. As it spread, people removed the quotes and attributed the entire saying to MLK.

    It was retweeted and re-posted by a lot of people including celebrities. It’s crazy how quickly the inaccurate quote spread.

    • Todd Post says:

      I think we all learned a lesson from the two quotes that went around. I lifted the “Twain” quote from my friend Sean on Facebook and tweeted it without question. In the spirit of my post, an interesting twist is that The Mark Twain House in Hartford CT has found a constructive way to tie into this story by tweeting real Mark Twain quotes and educating people on the error.

  2. peter says:

    Remember after 9/11 when agencies were issuing press releases like “in this time of tragedy, have some comfort food, from (soup maker name)”

    Sadly, nothing changes.

    Good piece.

    • Todd Post says:

      Thanks Peter, as was your piece Social Media Lessons from Bin Laden Death Coverage!

      You’d think that with the way the Congresswoman Giffords shooting coverage went down, that the media would have learned. Everyone is so eager to be first to report something, that reporting the actual facts seems to be secondary.

      I also felt the same way about the timing issue. I started seeing the tweets just after 10:35PM and I’m really surprised that it still took them about an hour for the official announcement. Nothing is more tedious than watching talking heads try to fill air time talking out of their backsides while they wait to find out what they’re actually talking about.

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