As news came in Thursday morning that the last remaining stronghold of Moammar Gaddafi loyalists had been captured, and the ousted leader could possibly be dead, media around the world scrambled to tell the story.
Libyan state television and Libya’s Transitional National Council confirmed Gaddafi’s death, but there was no immediate confirmation of the death from independent sources. Two photos soon began circulating that allegedly showed a dead and bloodied Gaddafi, but there was no confirmation for those, either.
In the absence of NATO or U.S. State Department confirmation, many news Web sites struggled to make do with what they had.
Some sites, such as the Huffington Post, dealt with the lack of confirmation by hedging their stories. “Gaddafi reportedly wounded in attack, possibly dead or captured,” the Huffington Post’s homepage headline read. It was so ambiguous that if any of the three were true, the Huffington Post could not be wrong.
Other sites simply inserted the word “reported” or “says” into their headlines. “Moammar Gaddafi reported killed,” read Reuters’s headline. “Qaddafi Is Dead, Libyan Officials Say,” the New York Times wrote. “Gaddafi reported killed as stronghold falls,” is what The Post chose.
Al-Jazeera, however, confidently reported his death, citing the Transitional National Council: “Moammar Gaddafi killed in Sirte”
The news agencies first to tell the story saw mixed results. Early this morning, al-Jazeera, AFP, and Reuters were all trending worldwide on Twitter because they had gotten the news out first. By 9:30 a.m., AFP’s site was believed to have gone down altogether.
When the AFP and Getty Images sent a photograph across the wires of a possibly wounded Gaddafi, many sites held back from pushing the photo in a big way, uncertain if it was a PhotoShop job similar to a doctored photograph of Osama bin Laden at his death. CNN repeatedly showed the photo on air but said it was unconfirmed. The Times of London, meanwhile, ran with it on its homepage:
Another photo and video was soon released by al-Jazeera that showed what appeared to be a dead Gaddafi:
Al-Jazeera said mid-morning that it had video of the dead leader and asked viewers to tune in shortly to watch it.
As rumors and unconfirmed photos continued to spread, CNN’s Anderson Cooper had this word of caution on Twitter: “Conflicting unconfirmed reports on Gaddafi’s condition and status. Rumors quickly spread and get repeated as facts. Best to wait and see.”
From about 8:40 a.m. to 9 a.m., Poynter tracked the ten leading websites to see how they handled the news. Poynter writer Julie Moos said each one provided information in the headline “to communicate how reliable the report might be.” She complimented them for the transparency, saying it helped boost media credibility.
But as CNN’s Twitter feed stayed mostly silent, Twitter user Kris Markhamin was among several who tweeted his frustration at the lack of updates: “Wow, @CNN is really struggling with this Gaddafi situation today.”