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Commentary: Why scapegoating the Red Cross won’t lead to change

I believe good journalism can drive change, but the way some journalists cover disaster recovery — and particularly, the way they are scapegoating the American Red Cross — will negatively influence the way we respond to disasters and hinder improvements that could lead to more efficient rebuilding and more lives saved.

Rather than dive deeper into an extremely complicated issue, these journalists have singled out a resource-starved charity manned by volunteers for blame, even though the responsibility also falls to multiple local, state and national government agencies.

A story about the Red Cross’ response to Hurricane Harvey — “Texas official after Harvey: ‘The Red Cross was not there’”, published and co-reported by ProPublica and Texas Tribune — is particularly egregious. In its first sentence, it labels the Red Cross’ response “anemic.” The story proceeds to quote from a local emergency management official in DeWitt county who claims, “The Red Cross was not there.”

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But the story then refers to a statement from the Red Cross, which said it operated two shelters in DeWitt for a total of 1,500 people, without clarifying which account is true. The story begrudgingly admits, “We have only a partial picture of the Red Cross’ response to the massive storm.”

Despite having a “partial picture,” the journalists felt confident enough to state that the Red Cross had an “anemic” response. Unfortunately, that assessment perpetuates the public’s animosity toward the organization.

Halfway into the story, a statement from a Houston official hints to a more nuanced view. The official said: “It wasn’t just the Red Cross — but city and county governments — that didn’t have the resources to respond to the storm.”

“Given the circumstances, I can say that [the Red Cross] worked their hearts out,” the official said.

A deeper dive would also reveal this: The Red Cross — a nonprofit with a specific charter that requires it to carry out duties assigned by the government — does not receive government funding. Its funding comes from donations and from things like teaching safety courses. When journalists fan the sentiment that the Red Cross cannot be trusted with a donation, they hinder the Red Cross from fulfilling its charter.

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Disasters have gotten bigger and more frequent — but the only thing “anemic” about the Red Cross is its funding. In fact, the story reports, near the end, that it has faced budget shortfalls and has cut staff. “Local chapters, including in Texas, have been shuttered,” it reports, and “the number of paid employees has shrunk from 36,000 in 2008 to just over 21,000 in 2015.”

I don’t dispute any of the opinions, quotes, or information that were 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, I think we could make progress. We could uncover all the shortcomings of all the organizations tasked to respond. We could create a public will for investing more in disaster recovery. We could compel the public to support the Red Cross, so it has the resources it needs to fulfill its charter, or we could give the Red Cross the resources it needs to restructure. We could frame the issue so that it results in positive change rather than scapegoating a nonprofit.

Nonprofits and charities are often scolded and criticized for not meeting community-shared goals — but they’re also underfunded by a community that demands they invest next to nothing on fund-raising and “overhead.” It’s a game they can’t win. Unfortunately, the real cost is being paid by the people they can’t serve. In disaster recovery, where storms, fires and earthquakes don’t care if you’re rich or poor, that could be any of us.

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Williams is the founder and editor of GivingCity Austin, an online news site that covers nonprofits. This commentary was first published on the site.

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