As everyone who reads the Internet in any form now knows, according to the Oxford English Dictionary the word of 2013 was Selfie – the act of taking a picture of yourself using a smartphone. This led to a round of patronising disdain from older commentators declaring the rise of youthful narcissism, and further choruses of embarrassing scorn from younger people sniggering at how out of touch older people were. 2013 was not the first year that people took pictures of themselves; it just became slightly easier with forward-facing cameras on cameraphones.
A more interesting photography-based cultural phenomenon in 2013 (one that albeit has a slightly less cutesy word) is the perpetual growth of citizen journalism. This is the practice of news sources employing viewers to send in pictures of themselves during or after significant news stories. The most infamous example of this in 2013 was of course after the horrific Woolwich murder, but people also sent in footage of helicopter crashes, as well as marathon bombings (USA) and meteors (Russia). The obvious example at the moment though is weather reporting.
In the UK there is a running joke about the validity of weather reporting. Ever since the household name weatherman Michael Fish made a bad prediction in 1987 about a hurricane, the Brits have mistrusted weather reports (when in front of each other anyway, especially strangers). There is also another running joke in our culture about when certain news institutions report any ‘extreme’ weather, especially snow. Every year the Daily Express and Daily Mail talk about some version of ‘Snowmageddon’, which then provokes mockery from The Guardian…the cycle is incredibly predictable (and on its way incidentally. February here we come).
To combat this mistrust the news tends to compliment its own reporting of floods and snowfall with incessant ‘citizen journalism’ from places that never make the news (like Devon or Wiltshire…). This manages to simultaneously prove that they care about the whole country and not just London, yet more importantly they engage real people to tell their human-interest stories about their flooded garage or snowbound truck.
The irony about all this is that the weather is one of the few areas of news broadcast in which the audience can actually use the information to adjust their lives. What audiences are supposed to do with information that someone has been injured in an accident (as tragic as it is, of course) or that a politician has called a policeman a ‘pleb’ (he didn’t FYI). The weather is the only thing that is consistently useful, and yet it is the one area of the news that we distrust the most and need reassurance from citizens in Bishopsteignton or Stoke Mandeville to prove that it really is snowing.
Which is more narcissistic: A young person taking a picture of themselves and posting it on a (semi) private social network for friends to see; or a news organisation encouraging people to take pictures of their cold gardens for the whole country to squeak at…?