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

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.

Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer/AP
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.

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.

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.

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.”

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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