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What’s so special about farting cows?

EWN asked the experts why a story about cow farts causing an explosion gets so much attention.

Why would a story about cow farts causing an explosion get so much attention? Picture: AFP.

JOHANNESBURG - Eyewitness News earlier on Wednesday posted a very short story about a bunch of cows who nearly managed to blow up their barn in Germany… by farting.

According to the story, a herd of dairy cows nearly lifted the roof off a barn at the dairy farm when methane gas released by the animals caused an explosion.

The gas from 90 flatulent cows exploded in the farm shed, damaging the roof and leaving one poor cow in need of treatment for burns.

Authorities said high levels of the gas had built up in the structure in the central German town of Rasdorf, then "a static electric charge caused the gas to explode with flashes of flames".

Crazy stuff!

These kinds of stories usually get a few laughs, retweets and shares on Facebook, to be sure. But little did we know that it would be Wednesday's biggest story on the site.

At the time of writing, the story has well over 800 Facebook recommends and hundreds of reactions on Twitter.

The story was a hit on other news sites too.

Respected traditional media houses such as the BBC even reported on the incident, to the delight of their readers.

Yes, it's funny. And it's great that no one was harmed. But the real question we find ourselves asking is why do we all care so much?

EWN published various major stories throughout the day, including the fact that DStv will launch a new 24-hour channel dedicated to the trial of Oscar Pistorius. We also covered the Reserve Bank's decision to raise interest rates - something that will affect almost all South Africans - and also the bank's governor Gill Marcus's warning that fuel prices may rise dramatically next month.

We've also been covering the ongoing tensions in Limpopo where two protesters were killed, and of course, what is a day in the newsroom without a story involving Radovan Krejcir?

And let's not forget the media storm surrounding Mamphela Ramphele's decision to run for president on a Democratic Alliance ticket, and some of our troubles in pronouncing her name.

But none of these came close to the cow fart explosion in terms of reaction.

Caxton Professor of Journalism and director of the Journalism Programme at Wits University Anton Harber gave his thoughts on what may be behind the high numbers.

"I think probably all that happened was that people saw the headline about cows farting and thought it was a major political story," he jokes. "They probably thought a politician had called a press conference and Eyewitness News got a bit enthusiastic about the headline."

On a more serious note, he says quirky stories have always caught the eye of news readers.

"Part of the great thing about reading news is the unexpected quirky story. Yes, everyone's following Oscar Pistorius, getting over the Mandela funeral coverage and preparing for the election, but what's more fun than a lighthearted, eccentric and quirky story?"

Harber says he doubts stories such as these are pushing 'serious' news out of the spotlight. He says it merely gives readers a break from the onslaught.

The professor believes media groups will publish these stories in the hope that it will bring traffic to their site, but argues that it may not be that simple.

"I suspect a lot of it is shared in ways that don't bring people to a particular website. Our research shows young people share via social media. Where it actually comes from and where it takes them to read it is of secondary importance."

Tech blogger and Head of Content at Clockwork Media Craig Wilson agrees that 'fluffy' stories such as these are especially appealing to readers.

"I think for a lot of people today, we're sitting at our desks and seeing a lot of stories coming at us, all clamouring for our attention. It's nice to have something lighthearted to distract us from the working day. These are the sorts of stories that people like to share," he explains.

"It's the serious ones that require the most attention that seldom get it and it's the frivolous ones that seem to be what people pick up and want to disseminate. People also want to be seen to be funny."

He says Facebook is probably the main platform for these kinds of viral stories, as Twitter users tend to have less in common with their followers than Facebook users do with their friends.

Wilson also argues that the reason serious news outlets appear to be publishing stories like these more often has to do with, well, FOMO [fear of missing out].

"What we're seeing is a lot of the mainstream media actually beginning to take guidance from less mainstream media like the Huffington Post. Part of that, too, is the concern by traditional news outlets that they may miss some sort of bandwagon - it's very much a case of being a part of whatever people are reading, even if it isn't part of their core line of focus. I think it's just the fear of being left out."

Whatever the reason, stories such as cows farting and causing explosions or even this one about a man selling a bed seem to be all the rage for news consumers today.

And don't worry - none of us are going to stop sharing them any time soon.

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