CAIRO—One of the benefits of teaching outside the U.S. is that I get to work with polyglot students. In my journalism ethics classes today, I scrapped my lesson plans and decided to peek at Osama bin Laden coverage on news sites in the many languages my students speak. I can read Arabic and English, but my students make me look primitive, as many of them speak three or more languages, including German, Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Danish, and French.
We took a look at news websites around the world, and I asked students to translate when necessary. Here are a few of the things we saw:
Norwegian news outlet VG emphasized on its homepage above the scroll that bin Laden had reportedly used a woman as a human shield while besieged by gunfire. (Norway is about as progressive as nations come in terms of women’s rights; new mothers get over a year of paid maternity leave at 80 percent of salary).
The homepage of Germany’s Der Spiegel offered a video piece providing information on the compound in which bin Laden had been hiding out.
The font size of The Huffington Post’s single-word headline “DEAD” was so large—like the scrawlings of NBA fans trying to get their signs viewed on ESPN—that no information about who had died was visible above the scroll.
As of 1:30 p.m. Monday Cairo time, the website of Egypt’s government-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, the country’s largest daily, had not a single mention of bin Laden’s death. (A story was eventually posted sometime after 2:00 p.m., or 8:00 a.m. in New York). The English-language Daily News Egypt, though, published under the auspices of the International Herald Tribune, ran the story front and center almost as soon as it came across the wire.
Al-Jazeera’s Arabic site had a very modest spatial mention of bin Laden’s demise, and the organization did not appear to adjust the font size of their headlines at all.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the intense rivalry between India and Pakistan, The Times of India speculated on its homepage above the scroll that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, may have happily ignored bin Laden’s semi-urban bungalow.
Like many other global news outlets, the website of Turkey’s Haber Turk network gave prominent space to bin Laden’s assassination, but also included the large, bloody photographs zooming in on the terrorist’s disfigured skull.
The French newspaper Le Monde’s site immediately took a more philosophical approach, asking “After bin Laden’s death, what is the impact on the threat of terrorism?”
While Twitter and Facebook pumped news of bin Laden’s death around the globe, word-of-mouth still mattered. Most of the fifty or so students in my two journalism ethics sections, who are wealthier and more digitally connected than most of the other 80 million people in Egypt, heard the news from a friend, taxi driver, relative, or me.
Still, plenty of other students I surveyed got the news via Blackberry Messaging, Twitter, Facebook, CNN.com, or other digital locales. One Arab student who was raised in the United States got a racist, ribbing text message from a friend back home saying, “Sorry about your uncle” and including a link to a bin Laden obit. She said it made her laugh and knows her friend wasn’t serious.
And of course there was the interplay between digital and interpersonal communication. Not long after NYTimes.com jolted me with the bin Laden news, at 6:30 a.m. Cairo time I brought my wife her coffee and asked, with a smile so her heart wouldn’t stop to worry about loved ones, “Guess who’s dead today?”
“Qaddafi?” she responded with a good guess.
“Well, maybe he died while I was making the coffee. We’ll have to go online to see about that one.”
“Osama bin Laden is dead,” I said.