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Feeding the media beast and flipping the bird

The CapeTalk Afternoon Drive Show picked up on some bubbling social media buzz around pictures that showed what appeared to be a massive Cape Cobra on Hout Bay beach taken the morning of 10 November.

The pictures were tweeted by actress and athlete Vanessa Haywood. The tweets, to me, seemed to suggest that she took the pictures - but never claimed so outright. The photos' origins were later claimed by a woman named Janice Gianna Wagner. A simple Facebook search on that day found her and pictures of said reptile with descriptions of her 'cute pet'. Turns out it was a man called Jeffery Rink who took these extraordinary images - but that didn't stop most news outlets running with what was essentially unverified information. It's too late for corrections to matter anymore.

I bring up the above detail because as journalists it is our job to bring you nothing but the facts when we report a story to you. When I saw the Cape Cobra pictures I knew it was going to be big later that afternoon. I had all of 20 minutes to get an article up on the CapeTalk website with as many (verifiable) details as I could gather in that time. What could a cobra be doing on the beach? Do Cape Cobras even get that massive? Was the photographer not irresponsible getting so close? Perhaps most importantly: WHERE IS THE SNAKE NOW???

These and other questions were asked of snake wrangler and all-round reptile maven, Shaun MacLeod. He later went to air, a podcast of which appeared below said article.

But I don't blame my industry colleagues for going with a light, fluffy and extraordinary tale. I blame modern media's biggest blessing and curse. The little blue bird company we call Twitter.

A microblogging service that's been relevant for all of half a decade has completely thrown the regular news cycle out the window. Editors will say otherwise but here is the only rule that matters in modern media: BE FIRST.

For we judge our success of a story with buzzwords like engagement, clicks per visit, multiplatform engagement and the like. Do the details matter when you're trending? Yes, but not always and never enough. I paint an industry in which I still stand on the fringes with broad strokes, and almost certainly unfairly to a certain extent. I've only my experiences and industry perceptions and see this happen on a regular basis.

The public accuses 'the media' of bias, of being in the pocket of big business or government, or of pushing an agenda of some sort. That happens, but at the end of the day your news is coming from overwhelmed storytellers who are trying to feed the beast. A beast that is insatiable. A beast that always wants more.

So, yes. Sometimes things fall through the cracks.

My advice would be to always think critically about the coverage of anything, and call us out when we drop the ball. You'll find us on Twitter. Heaven knows that's something it's good for.

Stephan Lombard is a journalist and radio producer at CapeTalk. Follow him on Twitter @stephlombard

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