Of Obama and Osama

The dominant news story in the United States (and probably the world) for the past week has been the death of Osama bin Laden. The terrorist leader was killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan early Monday.

Reporting on breaking news of this magnitude is difficult. The rush for information almost invariably leads to errors of different kinds. Here are some of those mistakes surrounding the Osama story:

  • Several U.S. senators claimed to have seen photos showing bin Laden after he was shot and killed. The photos were not authentic.
  • This quote attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. spread quickly on Facebook and Twitter: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” He never said that, but an American woman living in Japan did.
  • Numerous media organizations — including CNN, The Charlotte Observer and NPR — have mixed up Osama and Obama. I did it myself yesterday on Twitter, so I deleted that Tweet and admitted to my mistake there and on Facebook.

Each of these errors speaks to the need for editors, both formal and informal. Editors at news organizations should be careful to verify information, and readers should be vigilant and notify the media when they detect mistakes. Together, maybe we can get it right.

UPDATE: Errors in Osama infographics were frequent as well. An article on the Nieman site offers excellent advice in how to prevent that from happening again.