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When disasters strike, citizen journalists turn to Twitter

Why more news outlets are setting up bureaus in the blogosphere.

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Chen Weisu shows a picture of her daughter Zhao Meichen on her mobile phone, who was buried under a collapsed shop following last week's powerful earthquake in Beichuan, China.

Andy Wong/AP

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When an earthquake struck China’s Sichuan Province last week, some of my colleagues from NPR just happened to be in the area. In Chengdu to do a series on China in advance of the summer Olympics, they immediately switched gears and swung into action to cover the disaster.

But they were not the first to report in the US about the earthquake. That honor actually fell to Robert Scoble, a blogger who happened to be watching Twitter on Google Talk and noticed that several people in China reported that an earthquake was happening while it was still in progress.

(A quick interruption to go over some of the terms above: Twitter is a social-networking site that specializes in what’s called “microblogging.” It’s been around since 2006. Users can send short, 140-character messages to anyone who has subscribed – free of charge – to receive their “tweets.” Subscribers are known as “followers.” You can also post to any Twitter account that you belong to. Google Talk is an instant messaging client offered by, of course, Google.)

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