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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.

By Staff writer / January 9, 2013

People protest at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio, Jan. 5. Authorities investigating rape accusations against two high school football players in eastern Ohio launched a website Saturday as interest in the case balloons, an extraordinary step designed to combat the misperception 'that the football team runs the city,' the city manager said.

Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer/AP

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Soon after two high school football players were arrested and charged with raping a 16-year-old girl, in an alleged attack that was documented, in part, on social media, the town of Steubenville, Ohio found itself under siege.

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At worst, said critics, who ranged from area activists to supporters of the hacker site Anonymous, local officials tried to downplay the more lurid details of the alleged attack. At best, they said, the police mishandled the case in the very early days of its investigation.

So, this week, five months after the arrests, and with the case gathering national attention, the city created a website to steer the narrative – according to the website, “to disseminate the most accurate information” – about the case.

The strategy is an extension of what many communities do when thrust into the spotlight following a tragic incident, such as a mass shooting or a high-profile crime investigation.

In most cases, creating a web presence is typical. After the mass shooting in August at a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee that left six people dead, for example, town officials in Oak Creek, Wis., dedicated a page on their website to provide real time updates on candlelight vigils, funeral dates and times, and updates on the recovery of a police officer who was shot 15 times but survived.

Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi said he first became aware of the power of providing real time data online after the first press conference after the shooting, when the police chief announced that the names of the victims would be uploaded to the website that morning. Minutes later, the website received 10 million hits, forcing the server to shut down for 20 minutes.

Months later, the website continues to provide information related to the incident, such as grief counseling session times and notice of a town hall meeting discussing violence scheduled to take place this Saturday.

“Local municipalities are often slow to communication, mainly what they do is provide agendas for meetings and phone directories. But with the public now familiar with social media, they want the information right away,” Mayor Scaffidi says. “We essentially provided raw data, and whatever was released publicly,  we released it on the site. That was the real difference: the immediacy.”

However, in instances where police misconduct is suspected, some local officials are pushing this strategy a step further and creating dedicated sites that attempt to head off criticism by showing they have a firm grasp on the developing situation.

By branding a website that is specific to the event, the town positions itself as an in-house media outlet, ready to provide updates and perspectives on the event directly to readers, rather than serving as a third-party source.

“From a purely technical standpoint, having a site out there to show your side of the story helps organize search results. If I have optimized my website enough, I can counter all the negative press that’s out there,” says Vicky Vadlamani, director of digital strategy at Levick, a strategic communications firm in Washington.

The new Steubenville site, titled “Steubenville Facts,” was created on a free platform with key words such as “facts,” “resources” and “tips” peppered into the text in an obvious effort to push the site to the front of the line for web search results related to the crime.

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