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Oct. 31, 2019, 12:16 p.m.
Aggregation & Discovery

For Patch, local sex offender maps are a Halloween tradition

Critics say they spike fear levels in their communities unnecessarily. But they do well on Facebook.

October is a time for age-old seasonal traditions: candy corn, costumes, and Patch’s Halloween sex offender maps.

The posts — which have been running since over the last eight years across many of what are now its 1,200-plus local sites — all follow a similar formula. They start off with a lede like “Fall is a good time to take inventory of who is living in your neighborhood” (Brick Township, NJ), “Before kids go out trick or treating in Dallas, Hiram or Paulding County, fall is a good time to take an inventory of who is living in your neighborhood” (Dallas-Hiram, GA), before pulling out the numbers for a given county from the state’s sex offender registry. Some sites stop there; others embed Google maps with addresses and more details. “Pins on the map represent addresses of offenders convicted of sex crimes,” notes the article for Brick Township. “Roll your cursor over the pins, and you will see more information pop up, including the address of the offender, and a notation if they are a Tier 3 offender.”

There are plenty of other news organizations, especially in local TV, that use Halloween as a hook for sex-offender-related content, and there are certainly police departments and other agencies that do the same.

But no one seems to be as committed to the idea at this sort of scale more than Patch. A spot check of 30 Patch sites in Massachusetts this morning found that the sex-offender map was the lead story on 21 of them. I used Crowdtangle to come up with a list of more than 1,000 Patch sites across the country and in all 50 states (Patch says it’s in 1,226 communities in total). 303 of those sites published a Halloween sex offender map in October 2019.

Patch’s maps have been a subject of controversy, particularly in recent years as some news outlets have been seriously considering the negative impacts that their reporting on crime can have on individuals — both in heightening community fear beyond what’s reasonable and in how things a handout mugshot can warp someone’s online image for future Google searchers. (Lots of research has shown that people’s perceptions of how safe their communities are are significantly affected by how much and how their local news outlets choose to cover local crime.) Even big tech companies are getting into the game in ways that can balance reporting and fear-mongering in awkward ways.

“Our goal is to simplify access to publicly available local registry information for the families who comprise the majority of our readers,” said Dennis Robaugh, Patch’s editor-in-chief, who oversees local reporting teams across the country. In an email, he explained:

We offer guidance to the team for how to draft these posts, providing a template with suggested language, structure and links to the op-ed written by the sex-offender advocates who oppose the practice. We avoid sensationalizing the article with graphic images or headlines. We provide map-making instructions for each local editor. Staffers can localize the articles with quotes from local officials and information about applicable local or state laws.

They’ve been published every fall for the last eight years or so. Every year, when school begins, we receive requests from parents asking if we’re going to update the local maps and when.

Patch uses a similar system for other data-driven reports, like best-schools stories through a partnership with U.S. News. And indeed, this sort of data-driven story is a big factor in how local news gets covered in a more centralized news industry — whether that’s Patch or the network of Gannett newspapers set to grow to 265 markets soon. Public datasets that can be sliced-and-diced by market are a natural fit.

While sex offenders are hardly the most obvious target for sympathy, it’s unclear whether putting them on registries actually improves public safety. Critics say the practice makes it harder for offenders to reenter mainstream society after they’ve done their time and lumps together disparate crimes into a single category. The overwhelming majority of child sex offenders are known to their victims, either as family members or acquaintances. Reoffense rates are lower than commonly thought, and research shows that child sexual abuse rates don’t increase on Halloween; the main risk to kids that night is cars.

Sex offender maps, however, make for better traffic — as Patch’s experience bears out. Many of the map stories I looked at on Crowdtangle were significantly overperforming their sites’ other posts in Facebook engagement. The top story was from the Toms River, New Jersey Patch; it was shared 318 times and got 261 reactions, according to Crowdtangle.

The writer of that story, Karen Wall, covers the communities of Brick, Toms River, Manchester, Howell, Freehold, Wall, and Lakewood for Patch. I asked her why she thought the post did so well. “The two main reasons it gets the attention are that there’s a significant number of sex offenders listed in the area. Also, across the network we publish [these posts] early in October, so that timing seems to work,” she told me. Since the New Jersey sites are some of Patch’s oldest, they’ve also gained more traction over the years.

Wall explained that the editors work from a Patch-provided boilerplate for the Halloween sex offender stories; the text varies slightly by state, since different states handle their registries differently. “I make sure I put a lot of detail into each of those posts,” Wall said. “If you click the pins [on the map], it gives you the names, what the person was convicted of, what tier they are, and if there are details of the crime I put that in there. I don’t put in the physical description of the person.” (Other editors do include photos with their maps.)

Patch is certainly not the only organization to mine sex offender databases for content. Earlier this week, the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote about how local police departments were posting the same databases on their Facebook pages; those posts had been shared more than 1,000 times as of Monday, the Enquirer’s Cameron Knight noted.

One thing that seems clear is that the information about the neighbors is going to keep on coming: Despite the ongoing concerns about whether they work, more types of registries are popping up in states across the countrydomestic violence registries, meth and drug offender registries, animal abuse registries, and in Utah, a a white-collar crime registry. And as the registries grow, all of them provide fodder for future stories: This past April, Patch ran, for the first time, a new series: “Is there a meth lab near you? Check this map.” According to Crowdtangle, 263 Patch sites ran a story.

Photo by Chon Nguyen on Behance.

POSTED     Oct. 31, 2019, 12:16 p.m.
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