Crossing the Red Cross

Dec 08, 2014

NPR, in partnership with the non-profit news operation, ProPublica, has produced a series of investigative reports about the Red Cross and some major problems that were uncovered in the wake of the Hurricane Sandy disaster.

Among the findings of the investigation:

  • The Red Cross has misled the public when it says that 91 percent of all donated dollars go to services.
  • Multiple system failures occurred in the wake of Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy.
  • Less than 40 percent of Red Cross employees trust their senior leadership according to internal employee survey.

One listener, Erica Lowry of New York, has been displeased with the series and wrote to the ombudsman:

I am very troubled by the pieces that NPR has started to run on the Red Cross in partnership with ProPublica. The pieces appear to be balanced on tendrils of information that is then being inflated in presentation. For instance, referencing Richard Rieckenberg as a "head of mass care" when he is actually one volunteer who had one two-week assignment in New York, which was itself only one of more than a dozen states where the Red Cross responded to Hurricane Sandy with food, shelter, clean-up kits, medicine and clothing. Where is the responsible context setting I always imagined NPR provides, unlike other news outlets?

Context might include comparison with other organizations providing similar services in any affected area along the Atlantic coast; comparison with the government's ability to put federal funding to use rebuilding people's homes, an explanation of the scope of services that the Red Cross provides to people in the armed forces; blood and biomedical services or the 70,000 disasters that happen in a given year in the U.S.

What is the reporter's agenda here? We've had stories alleging diverted feeding trucks; a fairly standard employee survey and now I see another story is coming regarding how donations are reported (strangely, this story also references Richard Rieckenberg as a key source). There does not seem to be a compass to the coverage, other than mud slinging and reaching for one scandalous detail after another, presented in isolation to the listening public.

I am confounded and disappointed and would like a response from the Ombudsman addressing my questions and concerns.

I pointed out to Ms. Lowry that complaints about NPR programming is usually handled by NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos, but she said that since CPB provides an oversight function for all public media she requested that the CPB ombudsman also get involved.

The investigative stories on the Red Cross are part of a partnership between NPR and ProPublica. Various aspects of the investigation can be found on both organizations' websites (www.propublica.org and www.npr.org).

Laura Sullivan, an NPR investigative correspondent who joined the news operation in 2004, was NPR's representative on the investigation. Jesse Eisinger and Justin Elliott spearheaded the investigation for ProPublica.

Here is the response from Mr. Eisinger and Mr. Elliott to Ms. Lowry's complaint:

It's worth noting that your questioner appears to be a representative of the Red Cross: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/erica-lowry/5/750/b63

We're happy to respond.

The "Secret Disaster" [http://www.propublica.org/article/the-red-cross-secret-disaster] story was based largely on internal documents prepared by senior staff based at Red Cross headquarters in DC, meeting minutes of Red Cross executives discussing the Sandy response, as well as contemporaneous emails and other accounts. The key documents were published with the story and can be read here: http://www.propublica.org/article/red-cross-documents.

In addition, we had dozens of conversations with former and current Red Cross staffers and volunteers, as well as Sandy victims, volunteers from other organizations, government officials, and disaster experts.

We had multiple on-the-record sources. Richard Rieckenberg was one of them. He is one of the foremost disaster response experts in the nation. He was one of the most significant planners of the Sandy and Isaac mass care responses. (Mass Care refers to the most vital aspect of what the Red Cross does in the early days of a disaster: feeding, sheltering and distribution of items like blankets and flashlights.)

He was a paid reservist, not a volunteer. He was in charge of Mass Care for Florida during Isaac, in charge of Mass Care planning for Sandy out of headquarters in Washington and then in charge of Mass Care in New York during the immediate aftermath of the storm. He was praised as an "extraordinary asset to the country" in an email [http://www.propublica.org/documents/item/1348184-richard-rieckenberg-emails-after-red-cross-isaac.html#document/p4] by none other than Trevor Riggen, the Red Cross' vice president of disaster operations.

Our second major story, about the 91% figure, relies on our own analysis of the Red Cross's financial statements; interviews with accounting experts, and the charity's own concession that multiple statements by the CEO were false and needed to be withdrawn.

In that story, (Mr.) Rieckenberg is merely one of 11 sources who cast doubt on public figures the Red Cross issues about how many meals it serves after disasters.

Our agenda is to apply fair, serious scrutiny to an organization to which Americans donated over $1 billion last year alone.

Ms. Lowry said that her gripe was not so much with ProPublica, which she says has its own agenda, but with NPR, which has a responsibility to be objective and balanced:

While I appreciate your outreach to the ProPublica reporter, I was writing as a longstanding NPR listener expressing concerns about NPR's coverage. I understand the purpose and context of ProPublica's approach and the biases inherent in their presentation of information.

For what it's worth, I am not a "representative of the Red Cross." I did not check with my employer before writing my email to you and am not advocating any organizational agenda.

I look forward to reviewing the response from NPR.

Unfortunately the NPR reporter, Ms. Sullivan, declined to comment. Ms. Sullivan said she does not comment about her stories, her sources or her news gathering process and suggested that Ms. Lowry contact NPR's standards and corrections editor.

Nevertheless, Ms. Sullivan's editor, Robert Little, was willing to discuss the stories and Ms. Lowry's complaint.

"I think the stories speak for themselves," he said. "They were heavily sourced both on and off the record and much of the information came from documents.

"The Red Cross is a national institution and the President is urging people to contribute to it. These are richly reported and heavily sourced stories about the Red Cross response after these storms and how public donations are spent.

"I thought they offered their own context and were fair to that point. I don't agree with her assessment that suggests an agenda or bias."

Having listened to and read the stories to date about the Red Cross I too believe they were well reported and well sourced.

I understand Ms. Lowry's concern about context, but these stories are not about disaster coverage in general; they are about the Red Cross. The stories are on topic and effective. The agency itself has acknowledged that the way it listed its donations was not as clear as it should be and removed the 91 percent claim from its website.

The fact that Ms. Lowry is listed as a senior director of the American Red Cross' Superstorm Sandy Long-Term Recovery effort should not take away from her criticism if accurate, but it does suggest that she might be more sensitive to criticism of her organization than other listeners.

Oftentimes members of an organization that are the subject of journalistic investigation get frustrated when they see aspects of stories with mistakes in them or see elements of a story taken out of context.

In those cases, I strongly believe it would behoove them to contact the reporters who are working on those stories and explain where he or she believes the mistakes are.

I've found that in most cases the reporters are happy to engage and that their only agenda is to file the most accurate stories possible.