On Wednesday, the world watched as scared and confused teenagers huddled in the corners of classrooms while gunshots rang out at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Soon after the shooting began, Snapchat published a featured story entitled "High School Shooting." According to Snapchat, the story was comprised of snaps sent by Snapchat users on the scene to "our story," curated and annotated by Snapchat employees. It provided information on the breaking news, depicted students living through the shooting, and showed the aftermath of police, chaos, and concern in Parkland.
"He opened fire and, he killed a friend two feet away from me," a boy said in the story, shaken.
Just days before the deadly shooting, which killed 17, Snapchat released Snap Maps for web browsers, which provides wider and easier access to the previously closed-off and difficult to search Snapchat app.
— Damon Beres ✨ (@dlberes) February 14, 2018
Seemingly one of seven featured stories in the U.S. right now pic.twitter.com/AtoKHIuO4O
— Damon Beres ✨ (@dlberes) February 14, 2018
Before the website map.snapchat.com made snap stories easier to view online, Snap Maps had already proved its usefulness. During 2017's hurricane season, Snap Maps allowed viewers to browse near-real time footage from highly specific and difficult to get to locations.
Snapchat's coverage of the school shooting provides another example of how easily accessible, location-centric curation can add to public understanding of the news. But with such a sensitive topic, both created and viewed by a typically young user demographic, it also raises questions about how a company that started as a playful photo sharing app can ethically, safely, and accurately report on a national tragedy.
That's where CEO Evan Spiegel's recent push to beef up journalistic oversight and standards comes in. Snapchat previously employed CNN veteran Peter Hamby as its head of news (he now hosts Snapchat's show 'Good Luck America'), and the former managing editor of digital at ABC news now leads the team — part of a growing stable of practiced journalists at Snap. According to Snapchat, its news team is committed to curating and publishing stories using the same editorial standards as a traditional newsroom; the head of the news vertical responsible for running the "High School Shooting" story comes from ABC News, and oversaw the story's creation to ensure it met now increasingly-scrutinized journalistic standards.
As the news team sifted through incoming snaps from Parkland, Snapchat's curators had to decide what to include or exclude, when to label content with a "graphic content" warning, and ultimately, what was newsworthy. They determined when to add context to add to viewers' understanding of the events. And they took steps to verify the reports coming in. In short, they were conforming to a set of best practices for news content about an event with real victims.
Snapchat says that 20 percent of its users are under 18, and that they are concerned with ensuring the wellbeing of users when reporting on sensitive topics. The fact that Snapchat became a news source for this story particularly because it occurred in a high school is not lost on them. Still, its priority, Snapchat said, is providing reliable and valuable news to viewers — including those who are underage.
Meanwhile, Twitter is also increasing its foray into breaking news, but through different means entirely. Buzzfeed confirmed a partnership between Twitter and local news stations, that will supplement the user Tweets that have made Twitter a go-to for up-to-the-minute information over the years.
During major events, a "Live" video stream appears next to the Twitter timeline. When users click on the live video, Tweets curated by Twitter about the event will appear around the video from the local news station. This new strategy was in place during Wednesday's shooting, which provided a perspective on the event from a local news as well as social media user perspective.
But Snapchat is confident in its ability to dynamically and accurately report live events using its featured stories. Sean Mills, Snap's head of original content, recently told Mashable's Kerry Flynn that an Our Story "really feels like a real-time documentary."
"The emotion comes through in the very emotional way that you use your phone," Mills added.
The fact that the story featured prominently on the more-accessible-than-ever Snap Maps may be proof that, if Snapchat can make good on its stated commitment to journalistic ethics, Snap Maps could become an invaluable news source for spotting and following breaking news, in the personal and emotional way that has always been unique to the platform.
Update 2/15/2018 4:35 p.m. E.T.: The story has been corrected to reflect that Peter Hamby is no longer Snapchat's head of news.