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What ProPublica and NPR Won’t Tell You About the Red Cross

Laura Howe, Vice President, Public Relations

ProPublica and NPR have been hyping their sensationalized attack on the Red Cross response to Superstorm Sandy, in distortion-filled stories that are the result of months of reporting that sought only to find negative information.

Both of these pieces blatantly disregard the fact that hundreds of thousands of people who urgently needed our services were helped with food, water, shelter, supplies and other assistance. The results speak for themselves.  Our 17,000 Sandy workers – nearly all of them volunteers– served more than 17.5 million meals and snacks, distributed 7 million relief items, and provided 74,000 overnight stays in shelters.

There are some other things you need to know about ProPublica and NPR and how they operate.  ProPublica, in particular, has been investigating the Red Cross and Sandy since late winter, and continues to issue a public plea for information and documents in an effort to “dig up dirt”. During this investigation, the Red Cross answered more than 100 questions from ProPublica and NPR, in writing and in person. The three reporters visited our headquarters in Washington, DC and interviewed the head of our disaster response operations for more than an hour. You’ll see only one short quote from that interview in the ProPublica piece. Very little, if any, of the other information we provided in our dozens of other responses made into either piece.

Chief among those omitted items were surveys showing that three out of four Sandy clients in New York and New Jersey expressed a positive experience with the Red Cross. Instead of citing worker surveys showing 70% volunteers were pleased with their volunteer experience, the reporters chose to focus on three unhappy workers-all of whom had a very limited view of the disaster operation. We’ve created a myth versus fact document that answers their claims and shows you exactly what other items NPR and ProPublica chose to leave out of their stories. We hope you will take time to read the full accounting of our response.

In addition, all three reporters have aggressively pursued unsuspecting Red Cross volunteers from across the country. Their tactics included hounding our volunteers with unwelcome phone calls and emails-to the point of calling their neighbors and relatives in an attempt to track them down. The same people who selflessly gave their time to help disaster victims have had to explain to their friends and relatives why investigative reporters were looking for them.  To say this has been a witch-hunt is an understatement and our volunteers frequently felt like the prey.

We know that these reporters have talked to Red Cross volunteers and other people who have shared the good work of the Red Cross during Sandy – and we know it because these supporters told us. But those comments were not  included in what is a one-sided story. A Florida emergency management official even wrote a blog post about his hour long conversation with ProPublica. That’s the sort of perspective that never made it into either piece.

There are always disagreements among workers about how we can best deliver our services, but the results speak for themselves.  In the chaotic first few hours and days after a disaster, it is impossible to meet every need, especially on a disaster as large as Sandy. No one claims to be perfect, and no one is. But the fact is, that when problems occur, the Red Cross tries to fix them quickly, and we always strive to do better.

As we do with all major disasters, the Red Cross proactively sought feedback from hundreds of volunteers, staff and others as part of a thorough review of its response to Sandy.  Based on that feedback, and our own evaluation, we implemented changes to strengthen our service delivery, which we routinely do.

People across the country generously donated to the Red Cross after Sandy, and we have spent those donations quickly and wisely. The fact is that we have spent or committed to spend $310 million, which is 99 percent of the $311.5 million raised for our Sandy response.

And, one other note-these stories allege that the Red Cross cares more about publicity than the people it serves. This is patently untrue. The needs of the people we serve drive every decision we make. Period. That perspective never made it into ProPublica’s story either. We respond to 70,000 disasters every year-most of which are home fires that never make news. If we were in this for the publicity, why would the Red Cross make that level of effort for work the public never sees?

This kind of advocacy reporting does a disservice to the resilient people of New York and New Jersey. To sensationalize and capitalize on their misery for the sake of ratings and web clicks is reprehensible. Sadly, it also does a disservice to the selfless Red Cross workers who were part of this major response. The people affected by Sandy and Isaac and the people who helped them deserve better than this kind of treatment.

The bottom line is that Americans trust the Red Cross and should continue to do so.

Laura Howe serves as the vice president of public relations for the American Red Cross. Before joining the Red Cross she worked as a broadcast journalist. She holds a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri.