The Shot Heard Around the World Wide Web: Who Heard What Where About Osama bin Laden's Death


  • Accepted by previous editor Maria Bakardjieva


This study investigated what sources were relied on to find out about Osama bin Laden's death and whether perceptions of credibility and political party affiliation influenced these media choices. The most striking difference in media reliance for bin Laden news was that whatever sources Tea Partiers relied on and thought credible were those that Democrats did not rely on or see as credible. Despite the clamor about how quickly news flows through social network sites and Twitter, only about 5% of respondents first heard about bin Laden through these sources and a slightly larger percentage spread the news via these tools. Moreover, social network sites and Twitter were the least relied on about the aftermath of bin Laden's death.


The first report of Osama bin Laden's death was announced on Twitter on May 1, 2011, at 10:20 p.m. (EDT) by Keith Urbahn, former chief of staff under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield, who tweeted, “So I'm told by a reputable person they have killed Osama bin Laden. Hot damn” (Tsotsis, 2011). A few other reports dribbled out, most notably by CBS News Producer Jill Jackson, who tweeted eight minutes after Urbahn that a House Intelligence Committee aide confirmed that bin Laden was dead. About 25 minutes after Urbahn's original tweet, the three major networks reported on television that Pentagon and White House officials confirmed with journalists that bin Laden had indeed been killed and government officials had his body as proof (Hu et al., 2012). The trickle of messages soon turned into a torrent, as 3,440 tweets were generated every second and about a dozen Facebook status updates were posted per second during President Obama's televised announcement of bin Laden's death–new records for both sites (Stelter, 2011).

Ironically, even though there are now many more sources of news and access is easy and convenient, there has been a sharp drop in the number of news diffusion studies (De Fleur, 1987), especially of those examining how news is spread among consumers. Instead of examining news diffusion, recent studies of events such as Hurricane Katrina (Shklovski, Burke, Kiesler, & Kraut, 2010) and the Virginia Tech University shootings (e.g., Palen, Vieweg, Liu, & Hughes, 2009) consider how public officials employ telephone, e-mail, and social media to alert people about tragedy and how individuals use these communication tools to learn about the event and to find out information such as whether their loved ones are safe. Similarly, researchers have charted how information spreads through a social system such as Twitter to measure the influence of individuals rather than its importance in diffusing news (Cha, Haddadi, Benevenuto & Gummadi, 2010).

The astounding number of stories, commentaries, online blog posts, and Twitter messages about bin Laden's death led to the idea for this study, which is one of the first to examine whether perceptions of credibility and reliance on various legacy media,1 social media,2 parody news, and political websites, influenced where users first heard about bin Laden, how they passed on the news, and how they followed the details of the continuing story. In terms of party affiliation, this study goes beyond the traditional Democrats, Republicans, and Independents by including Tea Party supporters and Libertarians, and it also analyzes the influence of political ideology on media reliance.

Credibility and reliance were selected because they are associated with choice of medium (Johnson & Kaye, 2000; Kaye & Johnson, 2011; Wanta & Hu, 1994). Political ideology and strength of party association are examined because they influence credibility and hence reliance on particular sources (Stroud, 2010, 2011). Further, this is one of the first studies to examine if social media supplement or replace traditional media and interpersonal sources for learning about a major event. Finally, while most studies examine the degree to which media use or reliance influences perceptions of credibility, this study is one of the first to explore the reciprocal relationship: How credibility influences reliance on various sources for important news stories.

Literature Review

News Diffusion

News diffusion research is a specific type of diffusion of innovation study. Diffusion is “the process through which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system” (Rogers & Seidel, 2002, p. 210). Diffusion research generally defines as a new idea, practice, or object as an innovation, whereas news diffusion research considers a news event as an innovation especially if it is a newsworthy topic that attracts widespread attention (Rogers, 2000; Rogers & Seidel, 2002). While typical diffusion studies investigate how quickly an innovation is adopted by the public, news diffusion studies typically focus on how quickly word of an event spreads among news consumers, the sources they use to find out about the event, and whether and by what means they pass the news on to others.

The salience of an event determines how quickly people find out about it, the number of people who hear about it, and whether they pass on the news to others (Mayer, Gudykunst, Perrill & Merrill, 1990; Rogers, 2000). Also, whether people are at work or at home when an event occurs has a major influence on how they find out about it. People at home are most likely to hear about an event through the media. If they are at work, colleagues are more likely to relay the news to them.

Studies of the killing of bin Laden found that during the first two days after his shooting, nearly 90% of all news stories were devoted to bin Laden, making it the most heavily covered event ever (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2011b). Overall, during the first 5 postdeath days the news was passed on through an estimated 120,000 stories, 100,000 blog posts and 6.9 million Twitter or Facebook posts (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2011b). Because bin Laden's death was announced late on a Sunday night (the president confirmed it at 10:49 p.m. EDT), chances are that people heard the news via media (including television as well as social media like Facebook and Twitter) rather than through interpersonal means.

But despite the millions of bits of online buzz that circulate about a major event or disaster, the Internet typically is not the first place where people hear about breaking news. While recent news diffusion studies suggest the Internet plays a minor role in unfolding major news stories they did not explore the importance of social network sites such as Twitter and Facebook. As media move from an ink economy (traditional media) to a link economy (online media) (Egan, 2011) in which more and more people receive and send information through Twitter, by clicking “share” on Facebook, or through news feeds, the chance of first hearing about a story through a social network site increases considerably.

Credibility and Media Reliance

The sources used for updates about the news about Osama bin Laden's death are likely the ones relied on most and judged as most credible for news because reliance and credibility are reciprocally linked (Johnson & Kaye, 2000; Wanta & Hu, 1994). That is, the more people rely on a source, the more credible they judge it, thus the more satisfaction they gain from it and therefore the more they rely on it (Stavrositu & Sundar, 2008). Further, this reciprocal relationship exists between traditional and online media - perceptions of credibility of the traditional medium are transferred to its online counterpart, thus increasing reliance on the Internet version (Abdulla, Garrison, Salwen, Driscoll, & Casey, 2005; Johnson & Kaye, 2009). Reliance, in turn, leads to higher ratings of credibility of online sources, such as blogs, political websites, and social media sites (Johnson & Kaye, 2004, 2006, 2009, in press; Johnson, Bichard & Zhang, 2009; Johnson, Kaye, Bichard, & Wong, 2007), and to the traditionally delivered ones like MSNBC and Fox News Channel (Stroud & Lee, 2008), The Daily Show With Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report (Meader, Whaley & Dozier, 2009).

The importance of a news event also affects perceptions of credibility. Media credibility rises in the wake of critical events such as Iran/Contra (Johnson, 1993) and 9/11 (Pew Research, 2003). But credibility may drop if consumers are displeased with coverage, as it did after the O.J. Simpson trial and Princess Diana's death (Johnson & Kaye, 2000). However, it is unclear whether credibility influences what sources users prefer for detailed information about an event, such as the shooting of bin Laden.

Social media took the lead on the bin Laden story. Mashable's poll of its tech-savvy users found that Twitter and Facebook were the principal ways they discovered news about bin Laden (Parr, 2011). However, most people found out about the death through more traditional means. More than half first heard while watching Sunday night television. Fans glued to the Phillies/Mets playoff game on ESPN could hear the Philly crowd in the stands chanting the rumors of bin Laden's death (Daily Mail, 2011), and viewers watching Celebrity Apprentice found out when the President's news conference interrupted the program (Carter, 2011). Even in today's world of instant online communication, the percentage of people who learned about the death from interpersonal communication (phone or face-to-face) was greater than those who found out about it online (15% to 11%) (Everett, 2011).

Political Groups and News Media Reliance

People searching for credible information about major news events prefer media sources and messages that accord with their political views (Stroud, 2010, 2011). With the rise of contemporary partisan sources such as Fox News Channel and MSNBC, ideologically positioned blogs and websites, and the increased opportunity for individuals to find information that supports their political views and avoid sources that challenge them (Iyengar & Hahn, 2009), party supporters are polarized in their media choices.

Republicans and Democrats largely choose media along party lines with Democrats favoring what they perceive as liberal providers such as The New York Times, MSNBC, and The Daily Show while Republicans seek conservative sources such as Fox News Channel and talk radio shows (Iyengar & Hahn, 2009; Stroud, 2008, 2010). The favorability ratings gap between Republicans and Democrats on partisan sources such as Fox News Channel (72%-43%) and MSNBC (34%-60%) is large, and the gap persists for sources that strive to be neutral in coverage such as CNN (44%-75%), network television news programs (55%-81%), and NPR (39%-50%) (Pew Research, 2009; Public Policy Polling, 2011).

While some political observers consider Tea Party members as the conservative wing of the Republican Party, the Tea Party began as a social movement protesting the government bailouts of the automobile and financial industries and coalesced around the issues of fiscal responsibility and limited government (Skocpol & Williamson, 2012). So while Tea Party members may get elected under the Republican Party banner, they view themselves as a separate faction (Weigel, 2012).

Little attention has been paid to media habits of Tea Partiers and Libertarians although evidence suggests that both groups put little trust in traditional media. Tea Partiers and Libertarians both harbor a deep distrust of governmental and media institutions, with only 3 percent of Tea Party members and 14 percent of Libertarians trusting the government (Pew Research, 2011). Governmental distrust carries over to news organizations. Tea Party leaders routinely criticize members of the “lamestream” media for misrepresenting their group by focusing on the words and behaviors of fringe members of the movement rather than the group's ideals (Armey & Kibbe, 2010).

Libertarians have been highly critical of the mainstream media for ignoring their party almost entirely. For instance, 2012 Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul with Libertarian leanings received the least coverage of all the major candidates (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2011a). Libertarians, with their emphasis on limited government regulation and personal freedom, have long been a major force on the Internet relying heavily on websites and blogs as well as social media to communicate their ideals as well as to raise money (Camilla, 2011).

Pew Research (2011) systematically studied differences in media use among political groups and created the Pew Typology, which categorizes media use differences within the Democrat and Republican parties on factors such as ideology, religiosity, education, and income. For instance, two categories of Republicans, Main Street and Staunch Conservatives, are similar ideologically, but Main Street Republicans are more likely to rely on traditional news sources such as network news (51%-30%), daily newspapers (55%-44%) and CNN (21%-8%) while more likely to eschew partisan sources like Fox News Channel (37%-54%), Glenn Beck (8%-23%) and Rush Limbaugh (7%-21%) than Staunch Conservatives. The Pew Typology did not specifically include Tea Partiers, although they defined Staunch Conservatives as “highly engaged Tea Party supporters” (Pew Research, 2011, p. 1).

The Pew Typology also identified three Democrat groups: Solid Liberals, Hard Pressed Democrats, and New Coalition Democrats. Solid Liberals are overwhelmingly White, more educated and have higher incomes than the other two groups. While Solid Liberals list daily newspapers and network news as their two main sources, they watch network news considerably less often than the other two Democratic groups and read newspapers slightly less often than the Hard-Pressed Democrats (57–51 percent). What distinguishes the Solid Liberals is that they rely on the two most liberal sources, The New York Times (18 percent) and The Daily Show (21 percent) more than any other group, and they also listen to NPR more than the other Democrats and Republicans.

Further, differences between two ideologically opposite groups are striking. Staunch Conservatives (politically active Tea Partiers) are significantly more likely to rely on Fox News Channel, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh for news than any other group and are much less likely to seek news from television and radio networks (although 30 percent watch broadcast news regularly). Solid Liberals are more likely than other groups to turn to NPR, The New York Times, and The Daily Show. While 21 percent of Solid Liberals regularly watch The Daily Show and 18% read The New York Times, only 1% of the Tea Party faithful does the same.

Political analysts often credit social media with the creation and growth of the Tea Party, especially because many of its rallies have been organized through Facebook (Daniels, 2010) and its hashtag #tcot created a network of politically conservative individuals (Blackmon, Levitz, Berzon & Etter, 2010). The Pew Typology study, however, reports that Staunch Conservatives (Tea Partiers) are rather light users of social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter (42%), less than any group except the Hard-Pressed Democrats. Rather Solid Liberals (60%) and Libertarians (56%) regularly rely on social network sites.

Research suggests then, that Tea Party members are different from Republicans, thus this study treats them as a separate political party. Further, members of different political parties judge different sources as credible. In turn, perceptions of credibility led party members to the sources they relied on for news the bin Laden shooting. This study, then, addresses the following questions:

RQ1: How credible do Democrats, Republicans, Tea Party members, Libertarians, and Independents rate each of the sources for political news and information?

RQ2: From what source did Democrats, Republicans, Tea Party members, Libertarians, and Independents first find out about Bin's Laden's death?

RQ3: Since bin Laden's death, what one source did Democrats, Republicans, Tea Party members, Libertarians, and Independents rely on the most for information about his death?

RQ4: To what degree did Democrats, Republicans, Tea Party members, Libertarians, and Independents rely on various sources for in-depth information about bin Laden's death?

RQ5: Did Democrats, Republicans, Tea Party members, Libertarians, and Independents pass on the news about bin Laden's death? If so, from what sources?

RQ6: Does strength of political party affiliation and ideology predict what sources respondents relied on the most for continuing news after bin Laden's death?

RQ7: Does the degree to which each of the parties judge sources as credible influence what sources they most relied on for information in the aftermath of bin Laden's death after controlling for political and demographic variables?


Data were collected from an online questionnaire that was available from 23 April to 22 May 2011. Requests to fill out the questionnaire and the URL link were tweeted, delivered through social media and posted on blogs and websites of diverse ideologies3from the conservative Enter Stage Right, to the progressive Democratic Underground. Respondents had the option of snowballing the questionnaire by forwarding the URL to other online users. The questionnaire was completed by 3,464 respondents.4 This particular study examines a subset of 2,471 questionnaires that were completed after 2 May when four questions pertaining to Osama bin Laden's death and media use were added in response to the news of the raid on his compound.

Study Variables

Political Party Affiliation

Respondents selected the political party they are most closely affiliated with from the following options: Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Tea, Green, Independent, Other. Green and Other had too few respondents to analyze (12 [.05%]; 87 [3.4%], respectively).


This study measures credibility of 11 sources of political information: political websites; political blogs; social network sites; Twitter; YouTube videos; newspapers (printed or online); broadcast television news shows (televised or online); Fox News Channel (televised or online); CNN (televised or online); MSNBC (televised or online); parody news television shows. Credibility was assessed with a questions that asked, “On a scale of 1 – 10, with 1 indicating ‘not at all’ to 10 indicating ‘very much so,’ in general, how trustworthy or believable is the political information you get from the following sources?” Trustworthiness and believability are defined as major components of credibility (Fogg, et al., 2002) and they factor strongly as dimensions of online credibility (Abdulla, et al. 2005).

Osama bin Laden's Death and Media Use

Four questions assessed how respondents used the 11 sources in regard to bin Laden's death: 1) “From which one of the following sources did you first hear about Osama bin Laden's death? 2) “Since the time you first learned about Osama bin Laden's death, which one of the following sources have you relied on the most for details about the raid on his compound and other related news?” 3) “How much have you relied on the following sources for details about the raid on his compound and other related news?” (Degree of reliance: 1–5 scale). The fourth question asked respondents to indicate with a “yes” or “no” response each method by which they shared the news about bin Laden's death (text; e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, or other social network site; YouTube; telephone; or face-to-face).

Political Ideology and Strength of Party Ties

Respondents indicated how strongly they are tied to their political party of choice on a scale that ranged from 1 to 10 (no party ties to very strong ties). They were also asked whether they considered themselves very liberal, liberal, moderate, conservative, or very conservative. The responses are scaled from 1 as very liberal to 5 as very conservative.


Respondents indicated their gender, age as of their last birthday and estimated 2011 income. They also selected their highest level of education from among seven options that ranged from “less than high school,” to “Ph.D. degree.” The survey stipulated that respondents should be only those who are eligible to vote in the US.

Data Analysis

First frequencies and means were run on the independent variable (political party) and on the independent variables. Next, two-step cluster analysis was used to create a cluster variable that classified respondents into one of five political parties (Republican = 525; Democrat = 550; Libertarian = 291; Tea Party = 576; Independent = 529). Two-step cluster analysis allows segmenting of continuous and categorical variables. ANOVA was performed to ascertain differences among the clusters for the continuous variables (reliance and credibility of each of the 11 sources). Tukey's HSD test for unequal group sizes was applied to determine which means were significantly different.

Regression analysis was next conducted to ascertain the predictive power of source credibility on source reliance for continuing news about Osama bin Laden, after controlling for demographics (sex, age, education, income), strength of party ties and political ideology. To simplify the regressions, the 11 sources factored using principal components orthogonal rotation in into three groups: 1) Digital (websites, blogs, social network sites, Twitter, YouTube) (Eigenvalue = 3.37); 2) Mainstream (online or traditionally delivered newspapers, broadcast television news, CNN, MSNBC, parody news shows) (Eigenvalue = 1.64); 3) Fox News Channel (Eigenvalue = 1.22). The three factors were used as the dependent variables. The dependent variables were entered as three blocks: demographics, political ideology, and strength of party affiliation, followed by credibility ratings for each of the factored sources. The regressions were run on each political party separately.

Regression analysis was also conducted to determine whether association with a political party determines reliance on digital sources, mainstream sources, and Fox News Channel. Because political party is a categorical variable, dummy coding was applied and five separate regressions were run - one for each party. The output gives the predictive power of the political party tested compared to the other four parties, rather than to each party individually. The independent variables were entered as three blocks: demographics, ideology, and party strength, followed by dummy-coded variables.


Respondent Profile

The 2,471 respondents who completed the survey after the Osama bin Laden questions were added are generally White (71.2%), high-income ($97,000), highly educated (80% completing a 4-year college degree or higher) males (71.2%), who averaged almost 51 years of age. Respondents fit the typical profile of politically interested Internet users (Pew Research Center, 2008; Smith, 2009).

How Credible are the Sources? (RQ1)

The first research question delves into perceptions of credibility of each of the 11 sources. Between group analysis indicates that Tea Partiers deem blogs as more credible (m = 8.18) than members of the other parties (F[4,2469] = 50.753, p < .001). Moreover, that degree of credibility is the strongest of any source by any political group. Political blog credibility is also highly rated by Republicans (m = 7.77) and Libertarians (m = 7.53). Conversely, Democrats rate political blogs (m = 6.54) as significantly less credible than the other parties, but still find them moderately credible. Democrats deem newspapers (m = 8.00), parody television news (m = 7.35) and political sites (m = 7.07), as the most credible sources of political news (Table 1).

Table 1. Credibility of Sources for Political News by Political Party (mean scores, range 1–10)
 RepublicanDemocratLibertarianTea PartyIndependent
 (n = 525)(n = 550)(n = 291)(n = 576)(n = 529)
  1. Means scores with capital letters = horizontal comparisons - differ by p < .05 ANOVA.
Political Websites6.66BC7.07A6.55BC6.89AB6.34C
(F[4,2479] = 7.421, p < .001)     
Political Blogs7.77B6.54D7.53B8.18A6.98C
(F[4,2469] = 50.753, p < .001)     
(F[4,2470] = 29.849, p < .001)     
(F[4,2436] = 21.726, p < .001)     
YouTube (N.S.)3.643.893.653.913.55
Newspapers (print/online)5.47C8.00A5.42C4.52D6.10B
(F[4,24864] = 150.043, p < .001)     
Broadcast TV News (TV/online)3.94C6.85A4.13C3.14D4.80B
(F[4,2471] = 189.250, p < .001)     
Fox News Channel (TV/Online)7.02A1.72D6.08B6.90A4.38C
(F[4,2456] = 453.183, p < .001)     
CNN (TV/Online)3.75C5.90A4.04BC3.05D4.27B
(F[4,2458] = 106.604, p < .001)     
MSNBC (TV/Online)2.20CD6.51A2.49C1.90D3.32B
(F[4,2450] = 429.427, p < .001)     
Parody News (TV/Online)2.05CD7.35A2.36C1.95D3.86B
(F[4,2469] = 556.862, p < .001)     

Democrats' and Tea Partiers' judgments of credibility are opposite of each other. Where Democrats judge newspapers, broadcast television news, CNN, MSNBC, parody news, and social network sites as moderately to highly credible, Tea Partiers deem these sources significantly less credible than Democrats. Further, where Democrats believe the Fox News Channel is not very credible, Tea Partiers think the opposite (F[4,2456] = 453.183, p < .001). Political websites are the one exception to this pattern – Democrats and Tea Partiers both rate political websites statistically similar on credibility (m = 7.07 and 6.89, respectively) (Table 1). Democrats generally have more faith in the credibility of all the sources combined (m = 61.2; range 11 – 110), than the other political parties, with Tea Partiers judging the sources the lowest in credibility (m = 45.6) (Table 1).

Where Was the News First Heard? (RQ2)

This study focuses on the news about Osama bin Laden's death with the second research question asking from what one source did respondents first hear about the raid on his compound. Despite all of the chatter about Twitter and SNS being the quickest way to hear the latest events, only 5.6% of all respondents first heard about bin Laden being shot on Twitter and 4.6% through a social network site. One-fifth (20.0%) of all respondents first heard the news through a source not listed on the questionnaire, including being told by a friend or family member interpersonally or by phone, over the radio, through e-mail and text messages, from BBC television news, and television news breaks while watching sports or entertainment programs. The next most popular venues for first hearing the news were political websites (19.3%), political blogs (13.8%), Fox News Channel (12.8%), and broadcast television (12.0%)

Among the political parties, the top two sources from which the news was first heard are as follows: Republicans-Fox New Channel (21.7%), political sites and other sources (20.8%, each); Democrats-broadcast television news (18.8%), other sources (18.4%); Libertarians-Other sources (25%) and political sites (23.3%); Tea Party-political sites (25.0%) and political blogs (23.1%) Independents-other sources (20.8%) and political sites (17.5%).

What Source was most Heavily Relied On? (RQ3)

The third research question asks respondents to select the one source they relied on the most for post-death news about bin Laden. Between 31.4% and 51.9% of Republicans, Libertarians, Independents, and Tea Partiers selected blogs followed by political sites (between 30.6% and 37.1%) as their most relied on source for continuing news about bin Laden. On the other hand, Democrats favored newspapers (28.9%) and political sites (22.2%) for updated coverage. Independents also used newspapers (17.8%) and Republicans Fox News Channel (12.4%).

How Heavily Were the Sources Relied On? (RQ4)

The fourth research question asks the degree to which respondents relied on the 11 sources for continuing news about bin Laden. Comparisons show that political blogs were significantly relied on the most heavily by Tea Partiers (m = 4.24, range 1–5), followed by Republicans (m = 3.91) and Libertarians (m = 3.90) (F[4,2424] = 157.156, p. < .001). Moreover, the level of Tea Party reliance on blogs is the strongest of any other source by any other respondents. Political websites were relied on significantly more heavily by Tea Partiers (m = 3.78), Libertarians (m = 3.77), and Republicans (m = 3.74) than by Independents (m = 3.46) and Democrats (3.10) (F[4,2446] = 31.132, p. < .001). Democrats relied on online and printed newspapers most heavily (m = 3.54) for the aftermath coverage of bin Laden's death (Table 2).

Table 2. Degree of Reliance on Sources About bin Laden (Postdeath) by Political Party (mean scores, 1–5 range)
 RepublicanDemocratLibertarianTea PartyIndependent
 (n = 525)(n = 550)(n = 291)(n = 576)(n = 529)
  1. Means scores with capital letters = horizontal comparisons - differ by p < .05 ANOVA.
Political Websites3.74A3.10C3.77A3.78A3.46B
(F[4,2446] = 31.132, p < .001)     
Political Blogs3.91B2.62D3.90B4.24A3.36C
(F[4,2424] = 157.156, p < .001)     
(F[4,2421] = 19.614, p < .001)     
(F[4,2423] = 17.329, p < .001)     
YouTube (N.S)
Newspapers (print/online)2.69C3.54A2.58C2.20D2.90B
(F[4,2429] = 84.331, p < .001)     
Broadcast TV News (TV/online)1.91C3.00A1.92C1.57D2.21B
(F[4,2482] = 128.208, p < .001)     
Fox News Channel (TV/online)2.99A1.15D2.42B2.83A2.06C
(F[4,2430] = 205.758, p < .001)     
CNN (TV/Online)1.64C2.60A1.65C1.44D1.95B
(F[4,2434] = 102.030, p < .001)     
MSNBC (TV/Online)1.14C2.68A1.23C1.08D1.61B
(F[4,2420] = 303.734, p < .001)     
Parody News (TV/Online)1.13C2.64A1.11C1.09C1.66B
(F[4,2433] = 311.274, p < .001)     

As with credibility, a clear distinction emerges between Tea Partiers and Democrats on levels of reliance on sources for news about bin Laden. Between group analysis shows that political websites, political blogs, and Fox News Channel were each significantly and more heavily relied on by members of the Tea Party than Democrats. These same sources were significantly the least relied on by Democrats. On the other hand, newspapers, broadcast television news, CNN, MSNBC, and parody news were the most heavily relied on by Democrats and were the least relied on sources by the Tea Party group. In general, whatever sources Tea Partiers relied on most heavily for bin Laden information, Democrats relied on significantly less heavily, and Republicans, Libertarians and Independents ranked in between those two parties (Table 2).

Was the News Passed On? (RQ5)

The fifth research question asks if respondents themselves passed on the news to someone else about bin Laden's death and if so by what means. Telling someone face-to-face was by far the most popular way (67.6%) of spreading the word regardless of political party. Emailing was the second most used method (23.3%), followed by telephoning (22.2%). About one-sixth of the respondents told others the news via Facebook/SNS (17.4%) or by texting (15.1%). Only 7.9% tweeted the news and 0.3% posted a video online.

What are the Predictors of Source Reliance? (RQ6)

The sixth research question investigates whether political party was a predictor of reliance on digital, mainstream media, and Fox News Channel for bin Laden reports. The 11 media and sources factored into three groups: Digital (political websites, political blogs, social network sites, Twitter, YouTube), Mainstream (newspapers, broadcast television, CNN, MSNBC, parody news), and Fox News Channel.

Again, Tea Partiers' and Democrats' reliance patterns for bin Laden information are opposite of one another. Being associated with the Tea Party predicted using digital media (β=.06, p < .01) and Fox News Channel (β=.04, p < .05) but not using mainstream media (β= − .14, p < .001). Conversely, being a Democrat predicted using mainstream media (β=.28, p < .001) but not Fox News Channel (β= − .28, p < .001) or digital media (β= − .18, p < .001). Additionally, Republicanism predicted reliance on Fox News Channel (β=.09, p < .001).

Does Credibility Influence Reliance? (RQ7)

The seventh, and last, research question asked whether party association, ideology, and credibility are predictors of reliance on digital media, mainstream media, and Fox News Channel for information about bin Laden's death.

Digital Media

Strength of identification with the Tea Party predicted reliance on digital media (β=.10, p < .05) for news about bin Laden's death, but ideology itself was not a predictor. The strongest predictors of reliance on digital media were perceptions of credibility of the various sources. For each party, reliance was determined by high credibility of a combination of different sources.

Republicans who found political sites (β=.21, p < .001), political blogs (β=.15, p < .01), SNS (β=.14, p < .01), Twitter (β=.13, p < .05), and YouTube (β=.14, p < .01) highly credible relied strongly on digital media for bin Laden news. For Independents, reliance on digital media was predicted by their ratings of high credibility of political sites (β=.14, p < .01), political blogs (β=.29, p < .001), and Twitter (β=.29, p < .001). Libertarians' reliance habits for bin Laden news were predicted by how credible they viewed political sites (β=.13, p < .05) and Twitter (β=.28, p < .01). Tea Partiers who favor political sites (β=.19, p < .001), SNS (β=.15, p < .01) and Twitter (β=.18, p < .001) relied on digital media for bin Laden news. Lastly, Democrats who believe political blogs (β=.24, p < .001) and Twitter (β=.35, p < .001) were credible relied on digital media (Table 3).

Table 3. Credibility as a Predictor of Reliance on Digital Mediaa for Information About the Aftermath of Osama bin Laden's Death by Political Party
 RepublicanDemocratLibertarianTea PartyIndependent
 (n = 525)(n = 550)(n = 291)(n = 576)(n = 529)
  1. aPolitical sites, political blogs, SNS, Twitter, YouTube.
Strength of Party Ties.05.06−.03.10*.05
Political Ideology.00−.00.08−.02.07
R2 Change.
Political Sites.21***.06.13*.19***.14**
Political Blogs.15**.24***.09.01.29***
Social Network Sites.14**−.01−.06.15**.08
R2 Change.
Adjusted R2.308.309.127.180.330

Mainstream Media (Online or Traditionally Delivered)

Being a more conservative Tea Partier (β=.12, p < .01) with close party ties and being a liberal Democrat (β=.24, p < .001) predicted reliance on mainstream media for bin Laden news. Conversely, conservatives (β= − .14, p < .01), especially conservative Independents (β=.-10, p < .01) were unlikely to rely on mainstream news. As with digital media, credibility was the most prevalent predictor of mainstream media reliance for bin Laden updates, and again the five parties differed on how credibility influenced reliance (Table 4).

Table 4. Credibility as a Predictor of Reliance on Mainstream Mediaa for Information About the Aftermath of Osama bin Laden's Death by Political Party
 RepublicanDemocratLibertarianTea PartyIndependent
 (n = 525)(n = 550)(n = 291)(n = 576)(n = 529)
  1. aOnline or printed newspapers, online or televised broadcast news, CNN, MSNBC, parody news.
Strength of Party Ties−.**−.02
Political Ideology−.03.07*−.06−.14**−.10**
R2 Change.
Newspapers (printed or online).25***.09*.23**.21***.13**
Broadcast News (televised or online).13*.18**.15.15**.30***
CNN (televised or online).24***.23***.15.22***.08
MSNBC (televised or online).13**.18***.21**.04.24***
Parody News (televised or online).07.11**.06.06.16**
R2 Change.323.313.329.265.342
Adjusted R Square.374.274.348.325.583

Fox News Channel

Judgments of high credibility were once again the strongest predictors of media use to find out information about bin Laden's death, in this case from Fox News Channel. Various demographic characteristics were also predictors, and again with each party a different reliance picture emerges. Republicans who believe Fox News Channel is highly credible and relied on it for ongoing information about bin Laden were older, high-income females. In contrast, Democrats were males with high incomes. It was the older Tea partiers who relied on Fox News Channel. Strength of association with any of the political parties was not linked to using Fox for bin Laden news (Table 5).

Table 5. Credibility as a Predictor of Reliance on Fox News Channel for Information About the Aftermath of Osama bin Laden's Death by Political Party
 RepublicanDemocratLibertarianTea PartyIndependent
 (n = 525)(n = 550)(n = 291)(n = 576)(n = 529)
Strength of Party Ties−.
Political Ideology−.**
R2 Change.
Fox News Channel (televised or online).70***.48***.68***.65***.73***
R2 Change.439.212.427.299.393
Adjusted R Square.510.259.527.353.661


President Obama's televised announcement on May 1, 2011 that Al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden had been killed reverberated around the world in an instant. Those reporting on the media's role in spreading news about bin Laden's death said speculation about bin Laden's death circulated on the Twittersphere before the president's speech, but it was his confirmation that set off the media blast (Hu et al., 2012). Unlike major events of the past, the news was not only passed from the mainstream sources and professional journalists to media consumers, but globally among ordinary individuals via blogs, Twitter, and social network sites.

Overall, the results of this study generally confirm the reciprocal relationship between credibility and reliance. The more credible users deem a medium the more likely they are to rely on it; users do not rely on information from sources they do not view as credible (Johnson & Kaye, 2009; Metzger, Flanagin, Eyal, Lemus, & McCann, 2003). Conversely, the more users rely on a medium the more satisfaction they obtain from it and therefore the more they rely on it (Johnson & Kaye, 2000; 2009; Stavrositu & Sundar, 2008; Wanta & Hu, 1994). Post hoc analysis shows significant positive correlations between credibility and reliance on the 11 sources within each political party. Moreover, this study found that despite the media buzz about Twitter and social network sites to for bin Laden news these sources were used by only a small percentage of individuals of any political party for receiving or passing along the news about bin Laden's death.

The results generally indicate that political party affiliation influences media choice for information about major news events like bin Laden's death. The differences in credibility are especially sharp between Tea Partiers and Democrats. Whatever news sources Tea Partiers deemed most credible and relied on the most for bin Laden news were the same ones that Democrats thought of as least credible and were relied on the least for the news out of Pakistan where bin Laden was killed. For example, political blogs and Fox News Channel were given the statistically highest credibility ratings by Tea Partiers and the lowest ratings by Democrats. Conversely, newspapers, broadcast television news, CNN, MSNBC, and parody news are statistically rated the highest by Democrats but lowest by Tea Partiers. Media reliance thus also differed among the parties. Political websites, political blogs, and Fox News Channel were relied on statistically most heavily by Tea Partiers and least heavily by Democrats for news about the aftermath of bin Laden's shooting. Conversely, newspapers, broadcast television news, CNN, MSNBC, were relied on statistically most heavily by Democrats but least heavily by Tea Partiers. There was only one exception to this pattern. Tea Partiers and Democrats rated political websites as statistically similarly and moderately credible but Tea Partiers more heavily relied on these sites than Democrats.

News diffusion studies suggest that how people first hear about an important event is influenced by several factors, including when the event occurred and recent advances in technology. Because the death of Osama was announced late on a Sunday night (10:49 ET) and because technology advances the speed of how news is spread, it is not surprising most of the respondents found out about bin Laden's death through the Internet, whether it was through political websites or blogs (33.1%) or to a lesser extent through social network sites and Twitter (10.2%). Television still played an important role with one-quarter of respondents hearing the death announcement through broadcast news, Fox News Channel or while watching the baseball game, Celebrity Apprentice, or BBC.

Where respondents first found out about bin Laden's death differed among the political parties. Republicans were most likely to have first heard the news from Fox News Channel (online or televised), Tea Partiers from a political website, and Democrats from broadcast television news (online or televised). But one-fifth learned about the death through other means such as directly from another person, by telephone, e-mail, texting, or while watching entertainment or sports programming. But in this age of instant global communication it is surprising that less than 6% of the respondents first learned about bin Laden's death from either Twitter or a social network site. These findings challenge assertions that the traditional media are irrelevant and have been substituted for online sources. Rather, it seems that when it comes to breaking news television, web sites, and blogs are all important sources of information.

The findings also question whether Twitter and SNS have become the everyday, habitual, go-to means of communicating as the popular press purports. Rather, it seems that the millions of tweets about bin Laden came from a minority of rabid tweeters rather than from a large number of individuals who sent out a few Tweets.

Moreover, when passing on the news about bin Laden, telling someone face-to-face was overwhelmingly the most used means, followed by e-mailing and calling someone on the phone. Only about one-sixth spread the news through a social network or by texting, and only about 8% sent a tweet. That telling someone in person about bin Laden was the most often used means of communicating the news is understandable – it is natural to excitedly exclaim a big event to someone in the same house or restaurant or plane. E-mailing and calling are more direct and personal ways of communicating than using a social network sites or Twitter, so perhaps personal interaction is preferred when relaying news about a major event. But that e-mailing was used more than texting is perplexing. Both are personal, but texting is timelier. But e-mail is better for reaching a large number of recipients with one message, whereas text messages are generally sent one at a time.

This study also investigated whether affiliation with a political party predicted media reliance for news about the aftermath of bin Laden's death. For this analysis the 11 sources factored into three groups: 1) Digital - websites, blogs, social network sites, Twitter, YouTube, 2) Mainstream Online or Traditionally delivered - newspapers, broadcast television news, CNN, MSNBC, parody news shows; 3) Fox News Channel.

Identifying with the Tea Party predicted using digital media and Fox News Channel but not using mainstream media for news about bin Laden. On one hand social media has been credited with the rise and growth of the Tea Party (Blackmon et al., 2010; Daniels, 2010). Yet, Tea Partiers individually are not big users of social media (Pew Research, 2011). Reliance on the digital media group is probably attributed mostly to Tea Partiers' heavier reliance on political blogs than on the websites, SNS, or YouTube.

Tea Partiers and Democrats have generally disparate media use patterns. Belonging to the Democratic Party predicts using mainstream media, but not using digital media or Fox News Channel. Being a Republican predicts using Fox News Channel and independence from a party predicts using mainstream media.

Although political party is a predictor of reliance it does not mean that all members of a party only relied on the same sources or broader media types. When perceptions of credibility and political attitudes and demographic characteristics were considered, within group diversity emerged. For example, even though Tea Partiers generally ignored mainstream media for their news about bin Laden, those who did turn to mainstream sources were those who are generally less conservative albeit closely tied to the party and perceive newspapers and CNN as credible. Being a Republican predicts relying on Fox News Channel, but younger male Republicans who consider political sites, blogs, social network sites, Twitter, and YouTube credible relied on digital media, and those Republicans who trust the government and deem newspapers, CNN, and MSNBC credible relied on the mainstream media for bin Laden updates. The Republicans who relied on the mainstream media are probably those who the Pew Typology identifies as Main Street Republicans. Being a Democrat predicted having used mainstream media but younger Democrats who think political blogs and Twitter are credible but do not trust Fox News Channel and MSNBC relied on digital media, and Democrats who are highly interested in politics and believe in Fox News Channel and YouTube, favored Fox as the place to get their bin Laden updates. Perhaps these two groups of Democrats can be classified in the Pew Typology as and “New Coalition” and “Hard-Pressed,” respectively.

This study shows that in general media reliance is indeed politicized, especially in response to a major news story. But regression analysis shows that though members of a political party are drawn to particular media or sources that best represent their points of view, party followers are not monolithic. Personal characteristics and political attitudes also influence source reliance. For instance, Democrats who are highly interested in politics and judge Fox News Channel and YouTube as credible favored Fox News Channel for bin Laden updates. There are individuals who rely on sources that typically do not represent their party ideology and may be leading the way to a less politicized media public. They believe in their party's values and side with the issues, but they are also willing to attend to other sources for varying points of view.

The results of this research are important for several reasons. First, this study indicates that Tea Party members and Democrats favor different information sources and have opposite media reliance habits. Republicans and Libertarians tend to have somewhat similar judgments of credibility and media use, while Independents are closer to Democrats. Perhaps the most striking finding is the low credibility ratings and low reliance on social network sites, Twitter, and YouTube across the political parties. The popular press and academic scholars tout these three sources as catalysts for reinvigorating democracy and bringing people of the world together through the personal transmission of information. Yet, only a small percentage of this study's politically interested online users first heard about bin Laden or relied heavily on or passed on the news via these three sources. Presumably, neither social network sites, nor Twitter, nor YouTube are prominent sources of information for the general public; however, because much of the news and political content on sources such as Twitter are generated by a small number of elite users their perceived importance may exceed the actual number of users (Hu et al., 2012; Although social network sites and other digital tools are growing in popular use, only a minority uses them as a news source.


Collecting data about politically interested online users is difficult because there is not a way to identify and randomly select this particular group, and attempts to contact individuals through social network or other digital groups are thwarted by privacy protections. Although the findings should be generalized with caution, collecting data from a convenience sample has long been acceptable (Babbie, 2002; Zhou & Sloan, 2011). Further, online convenience sampling, such as that used in this study, is increasingly being used by proprietary (Keeter, 2009) and academic researchers (Agrifoglio, Black & Metallo, 2010; Johnson & Kaye, 2004, 2006, in press; Kaye, 2007). Moreover, a recent study (Chang & Krosnick, 2009) asserts that random-digit dialing and probability online samples generate more representative findings than do nonprobability online samples, but nonprobability samples generate a higher accuracy than probability and RDD samples because self-selected respondents usually have a personal interest in the survey subject.

The intended self-selected respondents for this study were politically interested online users. Despite the limitations associated with the method, these respondents demographically resemble those who rely heavily on the Internet for campaign information: white males with high income and high education (Pew Research Center, 2008; Smith, 2009).

This study was initially designed to examine reliance and credibility of 11 sources; however, 9 days after the survey was posted online, Osama bin Laden was killed. Seizing on the opportunity to investigate media use about his death, four questions were added to the survey. An open-ended question revealed that one in five respondents found bin Laden's death through sources not listed on the survey - entertainment television programming, interpersonal communication, radio - and thus these sources could not be used in statistical analysis. Perhaps if more sources of information had been included initially, a fuller picture about bin Laden's death and source reliance would have emerged.

Future Studies

This study found out what sources people relied on for information about bin Laden's death but only offers credibility and political party membership as explanations for media choice. Future studies should consider adding a uses and gratifications component to assess the role motivations play in media choice for news about an important event. Also, as past news diffusion research suggests, the time of day and event occurs has a big influence on how people find out about it. If bin Laden's shooting had happened during the day as opposed to night (EST) and early evening (PST) a different diffusion pattern might have emerged. Studies should continue to explore the influence time of day has on news diffusion and whether Twitter and social network sites play a more important role in spreading the word than they did in this study.


  1. 1

    This study defines legacy media as media sources available before the Internet and the online versions of them. For this study, legacy media includes newspapers (print or online), broadcast TV news (electronic or online), Fox News Channel, CNN, and MSNBC (electronic or online) (Miel & Faris, 2008).

  2. 2

    This study defines social media as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content” (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010, p. 61). For this study social media is measured in terms of social networks like Facebook, political blogs, the video-sharing site YouTube and the microblog Twitter.

  3. 3

    Announcements were also placed on a researcher created Facebook group, “Facebook Users and Political Polarization” and on existing groups of a variety of political philosophies. The authors posted status updates announcing the survey with a request to share the update with others One of the authors also posted on a note on Facebook about the survey and tagged friends, urging them to complete it. Survey announcements were also posted on, LinkedIn and the University of Texas LinkedIn group. Respondents were solicited on Twitter and asked to retweet the survey URL. Respondents were contacted through searches such as “Twitter and Politics,” “Facebook and Politics,” hashtags on Osama bin Laden after the death, and hashtags on leading Republican, Democrat and Libertarian political figures. Additionally, people who posted to the president's YouTube video announcing the death of bin Laden were contacted and asked to fill out the survey.

  4. 4

    Participation Rate: As defined by AAPOR “Standard Definitions:” “The number of respondents who have provided a usable response divided by the total number of initial personal invitations requesting participation.” AAPOR cautions that when using non-probability methods, such as invitations on Facebook, it is not possible to know the number of individuals who were exposed to the survey announcement. Participation rate is better used as an indicator of effort needed to recruit participants. For this study the participation rate of 27.8% is based on the number of people who clicked on the survey link and those who actually completed it.


  • Barbara K. Kaye ( (Ph.D., Florida State University) is Professor in the School of Journalism & Electronic Media, University of Tennessee-Knoxville. She researches how the Internet, blogs and social media influence political attitudes and media use behavior. She also studies profanity on television. She has coauthored three textbooks, published about 35 journal articles, and has taught in Italy and Austria. Address: School of Journalism & Electronic Media, 333 Communications Building, 1345 Circle Park Drive, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37919.

  • Thomas J. Johnson ( (Ph.D., University of Washington) is the Amon G. Carter Jr. Centennial Professor in the School of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin. His research has focused on the credibility of the Internet and its components, the  uses and gratifications of the Internet and its components, selective exposure and the Internet,  and the Internet and political attitudes and behaviors. Johnson has authored or co-edited four books, has 50 refereed journal articles published or in press and 19 book chapters.