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Ohio town, reeling from rape case, sets up website. Can it influence coverage? (+video)

Steubenville, Ohio, was buffeted by criticism after the alleged rape of a teenage girl by two high school football players. Now the town has a website for the case, but whether it will deflect critics is unclear.

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The text is written with a firm, almost defensive tone, with key assertions appearing in bold and italicized type. Some blog entries seemingly are written to elicit empathy – “Steubenville Police investigators are caring humans who recoil and are repulsed by many of the things they observe during an investigation” – following criticism the department responded without urgency. Only a single media report, from Fox News, is included under the heading “media coverage of the case and Steubenville Facts.”

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For government agencies, there can be pitfalls to his approach, says Levick’s Ms. Vadlamani, such as appearing to waste taxpayer money on enterprises that appear to be motivated more by public relations than good governance. Because it is sparse and was apparently created using free software, that appears not to be the case with the Steubenville site.

However, MilwaukeePoliceNews.com, a branded site launched last year by the Milwaukee Police Department, has been widely criticized for its opulent design and graphics that make it look more like it is selling a video game or a reality television show, rather than updating citizens on crime statistics.

The site was designed by Cramer-Krasselt, a Chicago-based firm, and has received accolades from the design and advertising worlds. (Advertising Age described it as a “thing of beauty” in August.)

However it is less appreciated in Milwaukee, where the site is a replacement for daily press briefings. The Police Department says the site is a more efficient method to disperse news, but local media in Milwaukee say the site is a reaction to negative news accounts that show the police have misreported over 500 assault cases in an attempt to get a favorable violent crime rate.

“Milwaukee Police Department administrators continue to resist efforts by independent news sources to fairly and accurately report what's going on without their filter and spin,” Journal Sentinel Editor Martin Kaiser said in a statement in March, soon after the police site went live.

Judging from the design – which features Milwaukee police officers stepping out of a tactical van branding high-powered guns – Vadlamani estimates that the Milwaukee website likely cost “at least $100,000.” Milwaukee police say the site was funded “pro-bono” by private donors.

The danger, she says, is that if government agencies step over the fine line of providing raw data to positioning themselves as the primary media outlet for specific events, the public will inevitably become skeptical and tune out.

“Everyone is trying to put out their own blog and own website and calling it a news source to counter misinformation. Instead of clarity of information, the only thing this is causing is confusion. You’re getting 15 different messages and it’s hard to find the true facts,” she says.

In addressing the crisis caused by sensational, and critical, coverage of the rape allegations and investigation, Steubenville took the logical step to create its site to help bring the critics to their side, Vadlamani says.

But, she adds, that might be missing the point.

“As a crisis management professional, this is exactly advice I would have given them,” she says. “As a female, I think it is absolutely disgusting.” 

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