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‘How Did You Start Investigating the Red Cross’: A Q & A With ProPublica Reporters

ProPublica reporters Justin Elliott and Jesse Eisinger took questions about their investigation into the Red Cross and its Sandy relief efforts on Reddit, Facebook and in the story’s comments.

Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern claimed that the charity’s post-Sandy response was “near flawless.” Yet ProPublica’s Justin Elliott and Jesse Eisinger, along with NPR’s Laura Sullivan, found that it wasn’t. Through internal documents and exclusive interviews, their investigation uncovered a bungled relief effort after Hurricane Sandy and PR-driven decision-making during Hurricane Isaac.

Jesse and Justin have been discussing the story with readers in the comments section of the story, on Facebook, and in an “Ask Me Anything” Q&A session on Reddit. Here are some highlights from the conversation:

Questions and answers have been edited for length and style.

Q: How did you start investigating [the Red Cross]?


Jesse: We started on this project because we got a tip, sometime in the spring. As it happens, we couldn't confirm that tip and didn't run a story on it. But we did realize in reporting it out that the Red Cross's disclosures were troublingly opaque. So we wrote that small story.

Justin started making public records requests and wrote several stories about that. As he was doing that excellent reporting, tips started pouring in. And then we got some of the documents.

After that, it was a matter of confirming the documents, fleshing the story out, finding other sources, running everything we had by the Red Cross for their comments and the context. And writing!

All slow and painstaking, alas. And so unsexy. We need to start meeting sources in garages or something.

Q: I am proud to be in Red Cross and also agree with some (but not all) of what you have written … What is the outcome you are attempting to have occur by your "exposé?”

— Don

Justin: Our primary goal was to tell the story of what really happened with the Red Cross' responses to Sandy and Isaac. And that's what we did, based largely on the charity's own high-level internal assessments and accounts of multiple Red Cross officials on the ground as well as victims and government officials … We're certainly aware that the Red Cross has other programs besides responding to large disasters (its huge blood business, responding to small house fires, et al). Our focus was on the large disasters of 2012.

Q: How many Red Cross workers did you interview? Did they have positive things to say?


Justin: Jesse, Laura, and I interviewed dozens of people, including many Red Cross officials and volunteers, storm victims, and government officials. It was very difficult to find sources with positive things to say about the Red Cross' responses to Sandy and Isaac. More importantly, multiple sources confirmed and fleshed out the Red Cross' own conclusions from its internal assessments.

Q: Was getting this information [from the Red Cross] easier/harder versus a company such as a drug company or retailer?


Jesse: The reporting on this was an interesting change for me, as someone who typically covers finance, banks and investment banks. Good people wanted to speak to us about the Red Cross because they were concerned and wanted to make it a better organization. They held the Red Cross to high standards (properly).

With banks, people don't expect them to be philanthropic organizations. Uh, to put it mildly.

Q: Did you get the sense that there is some kind of fundamental flaw in the idea of a disaster-relief agency or that the Red Cross is just run poorly?


Jesse: Some disaster response experts we spoke to believe that it may be better for disaster response to be more localized. That way the responders can bring their local expertise to bear on the disaster.

FEMA, by and large, is a coordinating agency. And it has been run more effectively under the Obama administration than under the Bush administration. Recall "Heck of a job, Brownie!" after all.

Q: I wonder what kind of salary the head of the Red Cross makes?

— Linda Wagner

Justin: Looks like CEO Gail McGovern got $628,000 in total compensation, per their public tax filing.

Q: What do you think the response will be ... with the next disaster?


Jesse: Many people we spoke with said that given the re-organizations, lay-offs and disaffection among workers, reservists and volunteers, they are worried that the Red Cross is not well prepared for the next disaster.

Have more comments or questions about our investigation? Head over to the comments section of our the story. If you have information about the Red Cross you would like to share, you can help us report this story.

Read the full investigation of the Red Cross, see key takeaways and read the documents that informed our reporting. For earlier stories on the Red Cross, read how the organization told us earlier this year that spending on Sandy relief was a “trade secret,” and later reversed their stance.

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