I believe good journalism can drive change. But the way journalists cover disaster recovery, and particularly, the way they are scapegoating the Red Cross, will damage the way we respond to disasters and hinder any changes that could lead to improvements.
Rather than dive deeper into an extremely complicated issue, journalists have singled out a resource-starved charity manned by volunteers to blame for disaster relief, even though the responsibility and effort falls to multiple local, state, and national government agencies as well.
A story run in today’s Statesman, “Texas Officials After Harvey: ‘The Red Cross was not there'”, originally co-reported by ProPublica and Texas Tribune, is particularly egregious. (Though in their overall coverage of Harvey, Texas Tribune does a fantastic job of identifying all the ways disaster-recovery went wrong.) First, a damning lead comes from one-sided opinion gathering.
“The Red Cross’ anemic response to Hurricane Harvey left officials in several Texas counties seething, emails obtained by ProPublica show. In some cases, the Red Cross simply failed to show up as it promised it would.”
It then proceeds to quote from a local emergency management official in DeWitt county who says, “Red Cross was not there,” But then the story proceeds to source a statement provided by the Red Cross claiming it had operated two shelters in DeWitt for a total of 1,500 people. (So… which is it? If only there were a way to check…) Then immediately after that statement from the Red Cross, the story continues ….
We have only a partial picture of the Red Cross’ response to the massive storm. ProPublica received emails through public records requests from several counties, large and small. But they don’t cover the full swath of the state affected by the storm.
So despite having a “partial picture”, you feel confident enough to lead with “anemic response”? It would be fair to say that government officials were not happy with the way disaster-relief played out. But the lead and the bulk of the quotes place blame solely on Red Cross.
Six hundred words into the 1,400-word story, we finally get this:
Providing relief in the wake of the storm was an enormously difficult task. Tom McCasland, Houston’s director of housing and community development, said in an interview that it wasn’t just the Red Cross — but also city and county governments — that didn’t have the resources to respond to the storm. The storm destroyed over 15,000 homes and damaged over 200,000.
“No one was prepared for this in terms of magnitude of numbers that showed up” at the George R. Brown Convention Center, one of the major shelters in Houston, McCasland said. “Given the circumstances, I can say that [the Red Cross] worked their hearts out.”
Why make readers wait so long to read that the Red Cross is not solely responsible for providing food and shelter? That other agencies were overwhelmed, too? (And that not every official blamed the Red Cross.)
And then, almost 1,000 words in to a 1,400-word story, we’re given facts that reveal a bit about why the Red Cross might be struggling with its disaster response. We finally learn that:
- “While the Red Cross operates largely as a nonprofit,” it has “an officially mandated role to work with government in providing food and shelter after disasters.”
- “As disaster have gotten larger and more frequent, the Red Cross has gotten smaller.” It’s CEO, who came from the private sector, has faced budget shortfalls and has cut staff. “Local chapters, including in Texas, have been shuttered.”
- Experienced disaster personnel have been “stripped.” Since the CEO has been in his role, “the number of paid employees has shrunk from 36,000 in 2008 to just over 21,000 in 2015.”
But, no! Do not donate to the Red Cross! The last thing they need is more funding! (This is sarcasm.)
I don’t dispute any of the opinions, quotes, or information that was gathered for this story. I dispute the way it was put together. A more accurate way to frame the story would be with this headline: “Nonprofit charged with disaster recovery poorly funded, operating on diminishing resources.”
If we were to reframe the story… then I think we could make progress. We could find out why the Red Cross has fewer resources, we could change the structure of disaster recovery so less of a burden falls on it, or we could increase funding and resources for the Red Cross and provide it with what it needs. We could frame it so that it results in positive change rather than scapegoating a nonprofit.
Has ProPublica visited a Red Cross disaster-recovery headquarters? I have.
About two weeks after Hurricane Harvey hit, I met Scott, a 12-year Red Cross volunteer who had traveled from Utah to run operations in multiple Central Texas shelters. In between phone calls and assigning volunteers, he had to keep working remotely because he didn’t have the vacation time to take off from his job again. I met Ian from Rhode Island, who’d been a Red Cross volunteer for all of six weeks before being deployed to Austin to manage the technology for the shelters and headquarters. He’d spent two weeks keeping computers and phone banks running so evacuees could fill out forms and call family. I met Mary, Pat and Tammy, (pictured here) licensed mental health professionals who’d traveled from across the country to volunteer in shelters to console and listen to evacuees. These volunteers had been through September 11, Hurricane Katrina, Harvey and, while I was there, they were gearing up for Irma to hit Florida.
Each one of the volunteers wanted me to know that the criticism against the organization was not going to slow them down. They were going to continue to help people because that’s what they came here to do.
Nonprofits and charities are often scolded and criticized for not meeting community-shared goals, but they’re also under-resourced by a community that demands they invest next to nothing on acquiring resources. (It’s confusing to write that because, well, while it’s true, it makes no sense.)
We need to do disaster-recovery better, no one disputes that. But we’ll never get there by scapegoating a single organization. Disaster-recovery is too complicated for it to be as simple as that. Journalists should strive for a deeper understanding.