Last Sunday night in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a self described IT consultant taking a break from the rat-race and hiding in the mountains with his laptops became an instant celebrity when it was discovered that he live-tweeted the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Since then Sohaib Athar has been held up as a prime example of what citizen journalism really is and can accomplish during what is now a 24/7 news cycle.
But do his tweets actually make him a journalist?
SF Weekly blogger Dan Mitchell doesn’t think so:
Steve Myers of The Poynter Institute declares that Sohaib Athar, a guy who lives near bin Laden’s compound, is a “citizen journalist.” Athar, an IT consultant, wondered what the hell was going on when the helicopters arrived in Abbottabad. Because he wondered on Twitter, in real time, now he’s a “citizen journalist.”
Even Athar, who had 750 followers as of Sunday night and now has tens of thousands, knows this is ridiculous. Nonetheless, Myers attempts to explain how Athar became “so influential so quickly,” while offering no examples of Athar being influential.
“In 24 hours,” Myers writes, “Athar went from someone who jokes with friends on Twitter and invites people to his coffee shop, to someone who broadcasts his thoughts to more than 86,000 followers.”
So all of a sudden an obscure IT guy in Pakistan who just happened to tweet about the raid is now supposed to be an influential journalist who deserves to be followed by tens of thousand of people?
Never mind the fact that he was really just complaining about the noise our helicopters were making at the compound and that he had no idea what was going on. Or, for that matter, no one even knew he had tweeted the raid until it was over.
His new followers are likely to be very disappointed when Athar has nothing more interesting to say than the mundane details of the day of what is happening in Abbottabad.
Could Athar be a citizen journalist? The answer is yes if he actually intended to write or tweet about an event, but in his case it was just pure coincidence that the raid took place near his home and that it disturbed what he hoped would be a peaceful, quiet evening. And unless he plans to pursue breaking stories, which I doubt, this will have been his one claim to fame. He is no more a journalist than my college-age son, who just created a Twitter account and isn’t sure what to do with it.
Mitchell admitted that Twitter is where he first heard the news of the raid and, along with Facebook, is where he continued to track the events as they unfolded. But he considers Twitter more of a headline news service delivering news he wouldn’t normally see.
Twitter is great tool for journalists who want to get breaking news out faster than they could by using traditional methods. But one series of tweets, no matter how newsworthy they might be, doesn’t make one a journalist.