Guest Host: Lisa Desjardins

Mike Sittig (L) and Nelson Morgan, Jr. bring supplies to Nelson's father's home to begin the process of cleaning up after flood waters inundated it on August 19 in St. Amant, Louisiana.

Mike Sittig (L) and Nelson Morgan, Jr. bring supplies to Nelson's father's home to begin the process of cleaning up after flood waters inundated it on August 19 in St. Amant, Louisiana.

President Obama visits Baton Rouge today. Flooding there killed 13 people and hit tens of thousands of homes. Clean-up is underway, but the challenge is profound: dozens of state highways remain closed, vast acres of crops are a 100 percent loss and thousands of people still can’t return to their homes. Those who can confront mountains of mud and debris, but some say news of the devastation was slow to reach the rest of the country and there are concerns that the national response may fall far short of the true need. Join us to talk about the crisis in Baton Rouge, the disasters we pay attention to, those we don’t and why.


  • Mike Oreskes SVP, news and editorial director, NPR
  • Susan Moeller Director, International Center for Media and the Public Agenda and professor, Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland author, "Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death."
  • Major Ron Busroe Community relations and development secretary,The Salvation Army
  • Sue Lincoln News director and Capitol Access anchor for WRKF in Baton Rouge


  • 11:06:54

    MS. LISA DESJARDINSThanks for joining us. I'm Lisa Desjardins of the PBS NewsHour sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is on a station visit to WUNC in Raleigh Durham, North Carolina. The flooding this month in Louisiana compares, in many ways, to the level of damage from Superstorm Sandy, but you might not know it from the news. Joining me to talk about recovery efforts underway there and why some disasters seem to get more of our attention than others is Lieutenant Colonel Ron Busroe of the Salvation Army, Mike Oreskes of NPR and Susan Moeller of the University of Maryland. Thank you all so much for joining us.

  • 11:07:30

    MS. LISA DESJARDINSFirst, we're going to where this story is happening right now and going to Louisiana and Baton Rouge. Joining us on the phone from Baton Rouge is Sue Lincoln. She's news director and capital access anchor from WRKF, the public radio affiliate there that we know has been spending a lot of time working, probably not a lot of time sleeping. Sue, can you tell us what today is like Baton Rouge? How is everyone doing? What is happening?

  • 11:07:58

    MS. SUE LINCOLNWell, people are very, very tired. We were already tired because we had been through so much with the Alton Sterling shooting, the shootings of the three law enforcement officers and then this hit. And there's a lot of physical labor involved in going in, gutting your home. There's a lot of heartache involved in trying to salvage what's left of your personal property, if anything. It's been a long month here in Baton Rouge.

  • 11:08:36

    MS. SUE LINCOLNHowever, there is still the sense of neighbors. People are helping other people that they didn't know before or that they may have only nodded to and said hello to in passing simply because the need is so great.

  • 11:08:56

    DESJARDINSWhat is the need right now primarily, would you say?

  • 11:09:00

    LINCOLNThe first need is for volunteers to come in and help remove as much of the flood damage, drywall, flooring, insulation, as possible before mold starts growing. And there is some growing already. That requires physical labor. Many folks are elderly. Many have small children. It isn't easy to gut a house yourself. Secondly, we have a need for storage facilities, because what you can salvage you've got to put in storage while you rebuild.

  • 11:09:40

    LINCOLNAnd mostly, we need financial donations to groups like the Baton Rouge Area Foundation which is a local foundation dedicated to helping the greater capital area region, to groups like the Salvation Army, which have been standing up feeding centers, collecting donations, distributing clothing and food and toiletries to folks that are in the shelters. But mostly, right now, we need volunteers.

  • 11:10:14

    DESJARDINSYou need bodies. You need bodies to deal with the very large mess on your hands to not -- to make sure that it doesn't get any worse. And this sort of brings me to the topic of our show, Sue. You're there in Baton Rouge and I heard you talk about how neighbors are coming together, the community there is coming together to help each other. Why do you think this natural disaster, at least for many days, maybe even be up until today, did not receive the same kind of attention as others on a similar magnitude?

  • 11:10:44

    LINCOLNLisa, I would have to say it's because we didn't have a buildup to it. It didn't get a name. It wasn't swirling out in the Gulf with us hearing predictions of, oh, it's going to go this way, it's gonna make landfall here. It's a category this or a category that. There was no brand name to attach to this storm. And, you know, at first, you heard flooding. Well, okay, places flood all over the United States all the time. But when you get two feet plus of rainfall, the water's got to go somewhere.

  • 11:11:21

    DESJARDINSIn 48 hours.

  • 11:11:21

    LINCOLNRight, in 48 hours. And this exceeded any records we had before. I spoke with our state climatologist Barry Keim on Friday and he said the prior record was 24 inches in 1995 in Abita Springs and the record from this was in the town of Watson in Livingston Parrish, which is -- a parish is a county. It's the next county east of us here in Baton Rouge. It was over 31 inches of rainfall.

  • 11:11:59

    DESJARDINSWow. That's hard for me to get my head around.

  • 11:12:03

    LINCOLNWell, for those who are where it snows, you have to remember that an inch of rainfall is equivalent to, on average, 13 inches of snow. So let's take it to a foot. We had 24 feet of snow, but in liquid form and it all had to go somewhere. It didn't stick.

  • 11:12:23

    DESJARDINSIt's extraordinary. And I just heard some of our listeners in Maine jaws drop at the figure. As we mentioned, President Obama is visiting today. How do you think the visits of politicians, does it help the community? Does that bring much needed attention? This has obviously become, actually, a campaign issue this year. What does that do in your opinion?

  • 11:12:46

    LINCOLNWell, for the folks that are here that are dealing with the hard physical and emotional labor of cleaning up after the storm, some of them do find comfort in it, but most of us are not too pleased at having yet another disaster in Louisiana politicized. Most of us have been through Katrina and we all know what happened with the politicization there. We -- in addition to having President Obama coming in today, Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate is in town right now. Hillary Clinton says that she intends to come and, of course, Donald Trump came on Friday.

  • 11:13:27

    LINCOLNSo it's one of those things that we're talking about, but mostly it's, okay, great, they're bringing some attention to us. Maybe we'll get more help. But other than that, it doesn't change the fact that things that you have acquired over the course of your life, memories, are out at the curb along with pieces of your house.

  • 11:13:55

    DESJARDINSSue, when we finish this interview with you now, I want to make as my last question, tell me what your newsroom will be doing today. What are you going to do after you hang up the line with us?

  • 11:14:05

    LINCOLNWe're going to be following the coverage of the president being here. We will be working on that. We will be updating the disaster recovery centers that have stood up here in Baton Rouge, updating all this information and updating our website with information for those who are looking for ways to get the help and the assistance that they need. And we will be continuing to hold all of our neighbors in our hearts.

  • 11:14:42

    DESJARDINSAnd we all hold you in our hearts as well. Sue Lincoln from WRKF public radio in Baton Rouge. Thank you so much for your fine work and for joining us.

  • 11:14:50

    LINCOLNThank you, Lisa.

  • 11:14:52

    DESJARDINSSusan Moeller, you've studied this. You've written about how we respond to disasters. Here, we have, in Baton Rouge, just to go through some numbers, Sue was so effective at giving me goose bumps now about the real emotional toll that a wide area is going through. The numbers also are incredible. 60,000 homes, maybe plus, have been affected. At one point 11,000 people were in shelters. This was just days ago.

  • 11:15:17

    DESJARDINSCan you talk to us about why it is that sometimes we don't take a disaster like this, we don't react to it on the scale of what's happening on the ground?

  • 11:15:29

    MS. SUSAN MOELLERIt's not always the case that amounts of damage correlate to amount of coverage. It's August. It's right before Labor Day. A lot of people are out on vacation. And we've just come off some major stories. Good news stories like the Olympics and problematic controversial stories that we're in the midst of, like the election. I think something that Sue said is also the case is that there was not -- this is a slow onset crisis in terms of how many people it affected.

  • 11:16:17

    MS. SUSAN MOELLERAnd a flood is not, per se, sort of a crisis headline as Sue also mentioned, unlike hurricane, tornado, earthquake which are a real breaking news crises.

  • 11:16:33

    DESJARDINSWhat makes those different, though? You know, what is it that either the media holds onto or regular people hold onto? Mike Oreskes from NPR?

  • 11:16:41

    MR. MIKE ORESKESYeah. Some of it is actually organizational. If -- Rebecca Hersher of NPR has a very interesting story out today which describes the difference between who's in charge of declaring a hurricane a hurricane and who's in charge of warning you that a rainstorm is coming that might produce flooding? Two different branches of the federal government are in charge of those things. So just the information flow in advance of this event was -- is different.

  • 11:17:08

    MR. MIKE ORESKESWhen you have a hurricane like Katrina or even like Superstorm Sandy, which never actually ended up as a hurricane, but might've, the National Hurricane Center, which is very closely watched by journalists, declares it to be a hurricane.

  • 11:17:22

    DESJARDINSAnd has a category.

  • 11:17:23

    ORESKESThe name. And rates it, right.

  • 11:17:23

    DESJARDINSThis wasn't a category 5 flood, which it -- if there had been categories, it probably would be a category 5 flood.

  • 11:17:29

    ORESKESExactly. So when Rebecca Hersher called up the National Weather Center -- the Hurricane Center and said, so where were you guys, they said, well, we're not authorized to talk about rain. We only talk about hurricanes. It's the local office of the National Weather Center. And lo and behold, it actually turns out that for several days, they were warning that very serious rain storms were coming. But remember the word local. This was very closely watched locally and by the way, particularly by the Baton Rouge and New Orleans stations of public radio who did a terrific job.

  • 11:18:00

    DESJARDINSAll right. We're gonna take a short break here, but we're gonna come back with your calls. We're talking about a powerful, local story that is now a powerful national story and why that might be. I'm Lisa Desjardins, we'll be right back.

  • 11:20:02

    DESJARDINSAnd welcome back. I'm Lisa Desjardins sitting in for "The Diane Rehm Show." Today's topic is something I've been thinking about for the last week., why is it that some tragedies get more attention than others? We want to hear from you. What disasters have you faced or those in your lives faced? How do you think they recovered? Who came to your aid? Or maybe you've come to the aid of someone else. Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Or send us your email at And we love Facebook and Twitter. That's @drshow. So please let us know what's on your mind.

  • 11:20:36

    DESJARDINSWe have an incredible panel of guests today, including one from the Salvation Army, Lieutenant Colonel Ron Busroe. I specifically wanted to include the Salvation Army because I've covered many disasters -- I've covered floods, hurricanes, I was in Haiti, I've covered mining disasters. And I have to say the most consistent presence I've ever seen on the ground has been from the Salvation Army. We were talking as we went into the break about this flood. And is there something different about floods and fires, that for some reason, it seems to me, get less attention than, say, a hurricane or even a plane crash.

  • 11:21:08

    LT. COL. RON BUSROEWell, they do. And, of course, Sue Lincoln touched on this, was the fact that the, you know, we really didn't anticipate that this was going to be as bad as it was. But whenever there's a flood and a fire, like we're going through right now in the western United States, it just doesn't seem to catch the attention of the American public to respond. And in a situation where the media gets in there and brings in lots of reporters, that hasn't happened quite as much. And of course, last week, when all of this was unfolding, a lot of us were thinking about how many gold medals we were going to win in Rio.

  • 11:21:46


  • 11:21:46

    BUSROESo I mean, I think that was part of it as well.

  • 11:21:49

    DESJARDINSBut do you think that's the slow-moving nature of these particular disasters, floods and fires? Or that they are harder to predict? Or is there something -- fires are certainly very visual.

  • 11:21:59

    BUSROEFires are very visual but, you know, people, you know, homes are destroyed and sometimes we think, well, they are people who can afford a home in the mountains.

  • 11:22:11


  • 11:22:12

    BUSROEAnd so these are not the people who are living in the city and sometimes, you know, poor folks who are losing their homes. And that, you know, it just doesn't seem to catch people's attention. The fires don't catch people's attention.

  • 11:22:27

    DESJARDINSWe do have this email from John, who writes, if this happened in the Hamptons, this would be all over the news. Susan Moeller.

  • 11:22:34

    MOELLERYeah. Certainly, if it happened in, you know, here we are in the tri-state area in Washington, D.C., or happened up on the East Coast, one could argue -- Hurricane Sandy, for example, which did have massive floods -- would be covered more. I think there's something also, to pick up on Ron's comment about floods and fires versus others, is that the photos that have come out not only from Baton Rouge but from floods in general are actually pretty esthetically boring or at least we're very familiar with them. We're familiar with the pile of sad artifacts from people's homes out at the curb. We're familiar with the aerial shots.

  • 11:23:24

    DESJARDINSPerson -- a couple in a canoe, we saw the first couple of days.

  • 11:23:27

    MOELLERYeah. And we did see the -- probably the most dramatic shot we saw was the coffins...

  • 11:23:31


  • 11:23:32


  • 11:23:32 know, that were floating down the water. But we really haven't had the stories coming through photos. And for a disaster to really make an impact, it needs to be telegenic.

  • 11:23:45

    DESJARDINSI can't argue with that. But I wonder if that's right. Michael Oreskes, you are in charge -- you make these decisions every day about what gets covered and you don't -- you not in a visual medium.

  • 11:23:57

    ORESKESYeah. Although.

  • 11:23:57

    DESJARDINSThank God for radio.

  • 11:23:59


  • 11:23:59

    DESJARDINSI love News Hour as well.

  • 11:24:00

    ORESKESYeah. Yeah.

  • 11:24:01

    DESJARDINSBut tell us how you make those decisions and how do you respond to this idea that perhaps the floods were not visual enough?

  • 11:24:07

    ORESKESYeah. So I mean, I think there are a couple of elements here. The first, of course, is that public radio is in a slightly different situation from most other news organizations. When the water started rising in Baton Rouge, we had people there because they worked for the Baton Rouge station. And you just heard Sue Lincoln.

  • 11:24:22


  • 11:24:22

    ORESKESAnd within minutes the station in New Orleans was responding as well. So we were present very quickly. And I think one element of early response is the difference between an event that was widely predicted and expected, like Sandy, and an event that was not really predicted. I said earlier that the Weather Service had said there was going to be heavy rain and flooding. But nobody predicted the kind of flooding that we've had here, the once-in-a-lifetime kind of event.

  • 11:24:49


  • 11:24:49

    ORESKESSo the fact that there weren't journalists already there waiting for it to happen and then moving immediately into covering it, other than the public radio journalists and, by the way, the local journalists from, you know, The Baton Rouge Advocate and from other news organizations, The Associated Press.

  • 11:25:04

    DESJARDINSThe Associated Press, right. Right.

  • 11:25:05

    ORESKESSo that's one element. Another element is, I don't, you know, I don't know that I agree with the letter writer or even with Ron that it was the wealth or poverty of the communities. But I do think there's a factor of communities we know and communities we don't know.

  • 11:25:25


  • 11:25:25

    ORESKESSo I think it's probably true that a hurricane that destroyed The Hamptons would get more attention than a hurricane that destroyed some other lesser-known place. Whether some people would actually view it as the comeuppance of the rich, whatever. It would have -- it would draw an iconic response...

  • 11:25:39


  • 11:25:39 a way that is different. We, whether defensible or not. And then a third element that I think is important and related is, I stood in my office at The Associate Press in those years -- I worked for the AP in those years in New York when Sandy hit. And as we all know, Sandy hit New York and New Jersey. I stood in my office at two o'clock in the morning and I watched the water rise around the building.

  • 11:26:02


  • 11:26:03

    ORESKESSo there were journalists all over, all ready to cover that event.

  • 11:26:06


  • 11:26:06

    ORESKESThe journalists in Baton Rouge were local journalists for the most part, other than those working for the AP and basically for public radio. And I think that made a -- slowed things down. I don't know that we yet know the full response to this event, because I think a lot of news organizations are only now fully gearing up for the event. But I do think the response time is related to some extent to the kind of event and to the location.

  • 11:26:32

    BUSROEAnd I think one of the things that's happening right now is you're now seeing some of the human interest stories...

  • 11:26:37


  • 11:26:37


  • 11:26:37

    ORESKES...that come out of it. You know, the family that, you know, the combined family lost 13 homes as a part of this. And so, you know, that's what's touching people's hearts. What we noticed is that, you know, early on, you know, we weren't raising a lot of money. Yesterday was one of the biggest days we've had online as far as giving.

  • 11:26:58


  • 11:26:58

    BUSROEAnd that's because, I think now we're seeing the stories, not just the guy walking through the mud or pulling his belongings, but, you know, the man who's coming in a weeping because the picture of his child has been destroyed.

  • 11:27:11

    ORESKESAnd I think that's an important point. It's really...

  • 11:27:14

    DESJARDINSMichael Oreskes.

  • 11:27:14

    ORESKES...another version of what Sue was saying also, which is that the big stories, you know, the number of how many people might have lost their lives or lost their homes or how deep the water was, those stories don't really touch people's hearts.

  • 11:27:29


  • 11:27:30

    ORESKESThey know that something's happening. What touches their hearts are the individual stories of loss, you know, the story of the person trapped under the rubble in an earthquake for four days is rescued. Those stories are the ones people remember.

  • 11:27:42

    DESJARDINSWell, I'm wondering, you know, in researching for this show I noticed that we had some terrible floods recently that we've already forgotten about. 2010, in Tennessee, 30 people were killed. You know, as I mentioned, I've covered many mining disasters. I have to say those were probably the most personally, emotionally gripping. And yet we did not see any reforms made to our mining laws. Sue, what do you think -- let's move this past what we pay attention to, to what leads to change. What actually affects either more giving or important change in legislation when a disaster strikes.

  • 11:28:18

    MOELLERWell, media --and to borrow a military metaphor -- is really a fourth multiplier, particularly image-driven media. The more the pictures and the pictures with stories are in the public eye, the more tension there is. And ultimately that can pressure politicians to show up.

  • 11:28:40


  • 11:28:40

    MOELLERIt can trigger aid donations as well. So you can have TV stories, for example, that are running the 1-800 numbers in the crawl underneath the picture, and that can really make a difference. So I think -- one of the problems with this story is that we really haven't had anyone to blame. And actually I would argue that one of the times when the story in Louisiana has picked up is when all of a sudden the media are being blamed for not covering it.

  • 11:29:15

    MOELLERSo this sort of odd, you know, duality of, we're covering it because we're not covering it.

  • 11:29:20

    DESJARDINSAlmost that second narrative makes the story is what you're saying.

  • 11:29:23


  • 11:29:24

    DESJARDINSThat's interesting. Let's...

  • 11:29:25

    ORESKESYeah. A sort of interesting narrative add on, I'd just point out that when the governor gave his press conference in which attacked the media -- this was last Monday, I guess just a couple days ago -- the governor actually waited to start the press conference so that Deb Elliott, the national correspondent of NPR, could install her microphone with the NPR flag. And he said, let's wait for NPR. And then he went and attacked the media, so.

  • 11:29:48

    DESJARDINSIt is a classic love, hate, need relationship.

  • 11:29:50


  • 11:29:52

    DESJARDINSLet's go to the phones quickly and to Philip in Florida. You disagree with our panel, Philip. What do you think?

  • 11:29:59

    PHILIPWell, the thing is I'm calling, I'm in Florida. And this morning on the "Today Show," "Good Morning America" and "CBS This Morning," all three covered this story in detail. And they have been. Lester Holt on NBC, which hosted the Olympics, he spent a lot of time on it during the Olympics. I just got my newspaper today and her headline is, Flood Victims Start Recovering. But what I'm saying is, everybody knows about it. FEMA is there. Salvation Army is there. Red Cross is there. Red -- Trump wearing his stupid hat is there. What more can they do on the media? If the local media is covering it, they all are affiliated with networks. So the news still gets out.

  • 11:30:53

    DESJARDINSGets picked up.

  • 11:30:54

    PHILIPI don't understand what more can they do?

  • 11:30:55

    DESJARDINSPhilip, thank you so much for your call. I want to pair that with a caller who couldn't stay on the line, Linda from Maryland, who said, she was so struck and moved by the descriptions of people's possessions being piled up on their front lawns. She says, it happened to her during Sandy. And she felt as though the rest of the country turned their backs on us. So maybe this is a difference, Ron Busroe, of people who are in the disaster zone feeling alone and isolated, and those who are outside the disaster zone.

  • 11:31:24

    BUSROEWell, I mean that's always the case whenever there's a disaster. I mean, I can remember back when we were living in Fort Lauderdale and Hurricane Andrew came through and the feeling of being forgotten.

  • 11:31:36


  • 11:31:37

    BUSROEAnd that's a big problem. And that's part of what, you know, we as the Salvation Army and other organizations do. It's not just about, you know, giving out the baloney sandwiches, but it's also sitting down and talking to people and giving them the opportunity. Because this is, as Sue Lincoln talked about, the physical exhaustion. But there's emotional and spiritual exhaustion...

  • 11:31:59


  • 11:32:00

    BUSROE...that's going around right now. And it takes a lot of time to, you know, meet those needs.

  • 11:32:06

    DESJARDINSI'm Lisa Desjardins. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And on that note, I want to go to Michigan. This is Susan in Saugatuck. Susan, tell us your experience with Hurricane Gloria, which some of our listeners might be familiar with from 1975.

  • 11:32:22

    SUSANYes, I lived in Vermont, in Stratton, Vt. And we knew all about Hurricane Gloria. And it hit the coast and everybody knew about it. It was all covered. But that night we all went to bed and the next morning, houses, stories, all of our roads were gone, washed away. That storm came straight up north into Southern Vermont and wiped us completely out of connection with the rest of the world. We didn't have electricity for a week. We didn't have food. We would walk the streets that looked like they were actually melted and hanging off into the ravines, into the gullies. We'd walk down the gullies. We'd walk back up. We would do this over and over again. And when we'd get down off the mountain, we'd get the mail and we'd bring it back up.

  • 11:33:03

    SUSANI'm sure that was illegal. But how else are you going to get your mail? And we'd throw it across gullies and throw it across rivers to each other. We were all completely isolated from each other. Not one person came up to help us. There was no Red Cross. There was no making sure there was food. We would get food from our houses and gather in one person's house with candles and make dinners so we could at least eat. But this was effect of Hurricane Gloria that never, ever has made the news or has been covered anywhere.

  • 11:33:30

    DESJARDINSAnd it was covered farther down the coast?

  • 11:33:34

    SUSANIt took care of the coast. Everything -- everybody was all about the coast, the coast, the coast. But this same storm headed inland, went through Connecticut and Massachusetts, and completely isolated the towns of West Wardsboro and Stratton, Vt. A grocery store we used to go to on the side of the mountain, completely gone. The next day, you'd never even know it was there. A neighbor's house, she said she knew something was happening. Her house was on the river. She grabbed her kids. She stepped out the front door. And on the last step out, she could feel her house wash down the river.

  • 11:34:08


  • 11:34:08

    SUSANCompletely gone. And there was a lot of stuff like that. There's a lot of people -- we were 2,000 feet above sea level on Stratton-Arlington Road...

  • 11:34:14

    DESJARDINSAnd nonetheless...

  • 11:34:15

    SUSAN...and down in West Wardsboro, and it was never covered. It's never mentioned. This huge disaster, all the streets washed out, and people's lives totally ruined. So there's a case where a hurricane storm heads inland and nobody knows about it.

  • 11:34:31

    DESJARDINSAnd still. Thank you, Susan, so much for your call. You know, she speaks to, I think, this same idea of people feeling isolated and stranded. Susan Moeller.

  • 11:34:41

    MOELLERYeah. I would say it's -- I'm not surprised by the three callers. You've had one that you read out loud.

  • 11:34:49

    DESJARDINSIt's fascinating, she's speaking about a storm 40 years ago, and you can hear how much that's still so present in her mind, feeling like she was isolated.

  • 11:34:56

    MOELLERI mean, that's sort of, I think what's so striking is that this story about Louisiana comes home to people who themselves have struggled through crises. In two cases floods and in Philip's case in Florida perhaps, of course, they're struggling through Zika at the moment. And I'm sure he's very aware of the kind of coverage that is receiving.

  • 11:35:21

    DESJARDINSMichael Oreskes, I want to broaden this out. We've been talking about Louisiana but it strikes me that it's not the only time that the American focus goes one way and not another. You know, obviously, this is going to go way back, but the Titanic disaster is something that still lives in our memory. But it might -- some callers may object to this comparison -- but yet we see thousands of refugees die in boats weekly now. But we're not giving that the same kind of coverage. Obviously, two very different events. But when is it that we pay attention to tragedies like that? And why the refugee story, which I know is a difficult one...

  • 11:35:58

    ORESKESWell, you know, I think this is an important conversation and it goes way beyond the power of any one organization or group. But it goes really to the whole way in which this society handles its problems. There is a limit to what empathy alone can do. And I think that limit has been pretty dramatically illustrated by really the two extraordinary photographs related to the refugee and Syria crisis...

  • 11:36:22


  • 11:36:24

    ORESKES...the one of the little boy dead on the beach and then, more recently, the little boy who escaped the attack.

  • 11:36:27

    DESJARDINSThe (unintelligible)

  • 11:36:29

    ORESKESYeah. And, you know, they're both incredibly dramatic, captured the world's attention. I wasn't even in the United States last week when the picture of the little boy in the ambulance was distributed, but I saw it everywhere. And yet, while it's focused our attention on these issues -- and even more so, by the way in Europe than here in the United States -- it hasn't produced solutions. Because the issues are more than just, can I send a dollar or can I, you know, round up some clothing?

  • 11:37:00

    DESJARDINSDeeply complicated.

  • 11:37:01

    ORESKESThese are fundamentally complicated...

  • 11:37:03


  • 11:37:04

    ORESKES...political challenges. The Syrian Civil War, the issue of what to do with immigrants flooding into Europe, these are really complicated issues. And just being empathetic won't solve them.

  • 11:37:16


  • 11:37:16

    ORESKESAnd I think that's really the question of what society can then do with all that attention. And frankly, political leadership hasn't been very good at figuring out what to do, once you've got everyone's attention.

  • 11:37:26

    DESJARDINSWhat do you think we should be doing in times of tragedy? That's what we're discussing this hour. We're going to take a short break, but please join us right after.

  • 11:40:00

    DESJARDINSAnd welcome back. I'm Lisa Desjardins with the PBS NewsHour. It's my good fortune to be sitting in for Diane Rehm today. We're talking about disasters, human tragedies, why we care and when we care about what's happening to our fellow Americans and fellow citizens of the world. And I want to go to the phones now, and Walter from Norman, Oklahoma, Walter, you're on the air.

  • 11:40:22


  • 11:40:23

    DESJARDINSHi, what are -- what's your thought from all of this conversation?

  • 11:40:25

    WALTERJust from hearing your panelists and the callers or whatever, here's my take on it is that I think that the national news media can take something out of the -- kind of the local news media playbook is that it's not that Americans don't care, it's just that the national news media has not been covering it because we're in a heated election cycle. And, you know, when I say take it out of the local playbook, you know, in Oklahoma we have a lot of, you know, tornado disasters, and when we do, of course our local news media covers it, but they also tell us how we can help.

  • 11:41:06

    WALTERAnd I think honestly the national news media ought to be ashamed because they should have, you know, put some coverage out there, let the American people know, like, what's going on and how you can help, and you'll be surprised, you know, the response that you'll get if you do that. But it hasn't been done.

  • 11:41:28

    ORESKESI actually thought it was...

  • 11:41:29

    DESJARDINSThank you for that, Walter. Michael Oreskes.

  • 11:41:31

    ORESKESI thought it was very interesting the way Sue Lincoln from Baton Rouge Public Radio instinctively included the how-to-help information when she was talking to you earlier in the show.

  • 11:41:40

    DESJARDINSShe did, and let me repeat that now. For people who are just joining us this hour, we spoke to Sue Lincoln from, as Michael was saying, Baton Rouge Public Radio. She said what they need right now are volunteers to just help with the muck and the mess. They need storage facilities. And she said they need financial help. She recommended the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. Ron Busroe from the Salvation Army, what can people do? What is best for them to do? We've seen actually a bit of controversy over some aid organizations, the Red Cross, I don't want to get into a fight with the Red Cross, calling for money rather than in-kind donations, but what can people do?

  • 11:42:14

    BUSROEWell, the goodness of America and the goodness of Americans is really always evident during a time of disaster, and sometimes that goodness creates a disaster within the disaster, and that's the gifts in kind, the unsolicited donations that come in, you know, the boxes of clothes, the boxes of food sometimes that can't be used or bottles of water that have obviously just been filled by somebody at home and sent, well-meaning people, but that creates sometimes a disaster within a disaster.

  • 11:42:48

    BUSROEVolunteers are needed to help with that, and sometimes those kind of things take volunteers away from other very vital responsibilities. The issue of financial support, you know, in a week, you know, the Salvation Army and other organizations, we're going to start giving out gift cards so people can go to the...

  • 11:43:12

    DESJARDINSAnd get the supplies they need.

  • 11:43:14

    BUSROEAnd get the supplies they need rather than going to a warehouse and going through a pile of stuff.

  • 11:43:16

    DESJARDINSAnd going through a pile of T-shirts.

  • 11:43:17

    BUSROESo, I mean, that's all part of it, and but, you know, and volunteers, trained volunteers, and we work with a number of organizations through our contacts with National VOAD, Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster, and they will come in after our friends with the Southern Baptists, our friends with Team Rubicon. They'll come in after the response is done and help people with the recovery, and that's already started.

  • 11:43:47

    DESJARDINSWe've got an email from someone in West Virginia who's saying maybe we've already forgotten the 1,000-year flood that was in West Virginia on June 23 of this year. But they write also what they're doing it. We are helping our downstate neighbors with citizen fundraising. Shepherdstown residents are raising thousands of -- have raised thousands of dollars on Sunday to basically adopt a school and provide a replacement playground. So that's something very tangible that one community in West Virginia is doing for another. And I think that's sort of what you're talking about, Ron Busroe.

  • 11:44:21

    BUSROEAnd those are the kind of things you see. I mean, you'll see communities in other parts of the country organize to help communities in Louisiana. And of course the fact is just, you know, if you go back to May, we have devastating floods in Louisiana and Texas just a few months ago. So this is -- this is an unfortunate pattern that we need to very conscious of.

  • 11:44:46

    DESJARDINSSusan Moeller, one thing that almost every disaster we've talked about today has in common is the weather. Are we generally paying enough attention to weather events right now? And are the number of weather-related events changing our perspective in a way that we're perhaps not paying as much attention anymore because they're happening so frequently?

  • 11:45:07

    MOELLERWell, in addition of course to the floods that you've just mentioned this summer from West Virginia and now Louisiana, of course July was just designated the hottest month on record in the world. So yes, we're entering a period of climate change where weather events are going to be -- severe weather events are going to be more frequent and more severe. And the media has to get its collective head around how to cover those and how to make sense of these sort of breaking events or these trend stories, and that's a challenge for every newsroom.

  • 11:45:48

    DESJARDINSMichael Oreskes.

  • 11:45:49

    ORESKESYeah, and I think it's fair to say that journalism has a much clearer playbook for things that blow up in front of us than we do for things that ooze over time, from glacial events, if you will, to use a bad metaphor. And so climate change has been actually a classic example of a story that's tricky to cover not only because it became divisive and polarized in the United States but also because it occurs over periods of time, and each individual event is a little hard to place in the larger context. And that becomes a challenge for journalists.

  • 11:46:23

    ORESKESHow do you -- how do you tell that story in a way that actually helps people understand the larger story?

  • 11:46:30

    DESJARDINSI hope I'm not stretching the bounds of this conversation too far, but I've been wondering if the economy isn't one of those stories, as well.

  • 11:46:35

    ORESKESOh absolutely. I think the -- and by the way, the economy I think raises two completely separate questions. It raises the sort of cyclical changes that, you know, come and go, and it also raises the enormous changes that are going on in the economy right now from, you know, one kind of era to another. And as we enter this era of high tech and information, you know, jobs that are going to be destroyed may well not be replaced in the way we're used to. And that's a kind of long-run, you know, quote-unquote 1,000-year change that will have huge ramifications and that I think is one of the driving forces, frankly, behind this election, the anxiety over that issue, the inchoate feeling that people have, which they don't really quite even fully understand.

  • 11:47:20

    ORESKESBut think, for example, Uber announced the other day that they were going to start running driverless cars in Pittsburgh. So imagine being the son of a steelworker who lost your job at a plant in the Mon Valley, and you're driving a cab, and now Uber announced that they're going to replace cabs with driverless vehicles. So a second generation of destroyed jobs. And this isn't to say that technology should stop or not stop, but it's how do you get around that as a journalist, how do you get your head around that as a politician, a leader.

  • 11:47:49

    DESJARDINSAnd what areas do you cover? We are paying attention to, some would say maybe not enough attention to, the Rust Belt, which is I think a very big theme in this campaign, as you said Michael Oreskes. But, you know, I know, and I've known for years, we have paid almost zero attention to Native American reservations. You know, we think that high unemployment generally is something over seven percent, maybe six percent, but on the reservations we see unemployment of 30, 40, 50 percent, but it's virtually ignored.

  • 11:48:17

    DESJARDINSAnd this is where I'm interested in the Salvation Army's perspective, Ron Busroe, because you deal not just with these sort of acts of God, devastation, but you deal with acts of man, as well, like the economy and individuals who are in drug recovery, individuals who are struggling. Can you talk about what sort of attention you think is being paid to those things that you deal with now, especially drug recovery and the economy? How much of a challenge is that for you right now? How much is the public paying attention to that?

  • 11:48:43

    BUSROEWell that's a constant problem, I mean, like Michael talked about that, you know, the fact that situations are changing. Where we used to deal with crack cocaine in our drug and alcohol programs, now we're dealing with opiates. We're -- a friend of mine who runs one of the centers says, you know, I hear the music we grew up with, she's my age, she says I hear the music we grew up with because the men who are in our center, the women in our centers, are people our age who got hooked on opiates because they went to the doctor after surgery, and they got hooked on opiates, you know, through prescriptions, and now they're in the Salvation Army's Drug and Alcohol Program.

  • 11:49:20

    BUSROEAnd we have to constantly be aware. We have a thing called the human needs index that measures human need around the country, and we're constantly looking at those situations because it changes from year to year, and we have to be aware. And of course with our disaster response, I mean, how many 100-year floods, how many 1,000-year floods can we handle? And, you know, those of who are in the not-for-profit area who depend on donations, if the donations don't come in, it's very difficult for us to respond in those times of desperate need.

  • 11:49:52

    DESJARDINSWe have an -- we have a tweet. Someone writes, we at Global Giving see a strong correlation between disaster donations and media coverage. One thing I was fascinated to read as I was looking at this show again was even when we see record levels of giving, as we have seen, according to the Giving Institute, for the past two years, we've seen record dollar amounts, inflation and real, real dollars in America for charitable giving. The percent relative to GDP stays almost exactly the same. We generally give about two percent of our economic worth as a country. Susan Moeller, why is that? Is that just sort of some kind of Newton's law of charity, or is there some way to change that? Does it need to change?

  • 11:50:37

    MOELLERWell, I think one of the things that is actually very interesting as a statistic is when you ask Americans in polls how much they think they're giving, you know, in the aggregate, they usually come at a much higher number than that. And there are populations who proportionately give more, dig deeper. And so I think it's -- you know, those make good case studies.

  • 11:51:01

    MOELLERBut I think one of the things that tracks with media coverage is people's feeling that the more media coverage you have, the more it signals that you care. And so the question about -- the conversation about media coverage is really the conversation about what do we care about, what does the news institution care about, what do we as individuals care about, what's -- what are our priorities.

  • 11:51:28

    MOELLERAnd in the book that I wrote years ago called compassion fatigue, one of the things that I discovered from the research was that people don't get tired of hearing about disasters so much if they feel like they can help. It's personal agency, feeling like that their $5 really is going to make a difference. They will keep giving. But feeling like it's so big, it's the refugee issue, and how are you going to stop Syria.

  • 11:51:56

    DESJARDINSAnd we have a caller, Justin from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who is right on your same note. Justin, tell us your thought. You're on the air.

  • 11:52:03

    JUSTINHi, yeah, thank you for -- thank you for having me on, and that's actually -- that's what my question was about. I wanted to bring into the discussion the concept of compassion fatigue. We have this 24-hour global news and media cycle that is constantly streaming, and what seems to always get the attention is a disaster here or there. And I know in my community it's hard to keep my eyes focused on Harrisburg, let's say, when I'm actually seeing more and more tragedies and disasters and need around the world, things that I -- it's easy to become detached from.

  • 11:52:39

    JUSTINAnd I wonder if maybe some of the local communities could do better to help their own local communities. Maybe the media could play a role in that, and then maybe, for instance -- I think maybe what it is that global news coverage is way more successful at getting in front of people, whether that's through social media or through new digital platforms, than the local news platforms.

  • 11:53:03

    DESJARDINSJustin, thank you, and I'm Lisa Desjardins. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. What do you make of that, global platforms, Michael Oreskes of NPR?

  • 11:53:11

    ORESKESI agree with him. And I think good for him. I think there's two different issues he raised. One is I'd go just beyond just compassion fatigue. I think we have information fatigue. I think we are so overloaded with things, and they happen so quickly, and the story moves on to the next thing I -- I mean, I feel it. You know, one of the things we talk about a lot in the office at NPR is just how to slow things down, how to slow down long enough to do what you're doing on this program. Spend an hour on a topic? I mean, who has an hour for anything anymore?

  • 11:53:38

    DESJARDINSWhat, what?

  • 11:53:39

    ORESKESBut there's the second point, which I think is subtler but actually very, very, very important, and it's community engagement, if you want to use that word. It's being connected to your community. And community can mean a lot of different things. It mean the community of the Salvation Army, it can mean the community of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, it can mean different things, but unless you feel connected to something, you really do begin to become just swamped in this information, which in fact is often very unnerving and frightening and jarring, and if you don't feel any sense of agency, as Susan said just a minute ago, what do you do with all of that.

  • 11:54:16

    ORESKESYou just -- you just become immobilized by it. So I do think that the need...

  • 11:54:22

    DESJARDINSBut that seems human and not necessarily modern. That doesn't seem new.

  • 11:54:23

    ORESKESOh, I don't think it's new at all. I think it's just been exacerbated by the level of information that's poured on your head every minute if you just sit there and let it happen. And I do think that part of the solution is in fact stronger local media with more connections to you in your community, and in public radio that's one of our biggest missions is to create that. And I think it equally applies to organizations, and I think Ron would probably agree with that, essentially how the Salvation Army sees its role.

  • 11:54:48

    DESJARDINSRon Busroe?

  • 11:54:49

    BUSROEWell, he's exactly right, and of course the whole issue of not just the traditional media but the opportunity through social media to take that message and get it out and just to see how viral the stories can be through social media, and that's where I think in a lot of cases that's the way we get our message out to the people who are going to volunteer, the people who are going to give, the people who are going to pray for those who are in Baton Rouge and other areas that are affected.

  • 11:55:19

    BUSROESo that's -- you know, that's very important. So we all need to make sure that people are aware, and I was -- just a few weeks ago I was with the folks who were in charge of the Salvation Army in Reading, Pennsylvania. Now there's a town that's been affected by disaster, but it's an economic disaster. It's one of the most economically depressed communities. And we were talking about how they are coming together in their community to help the people in the community.

  • 11:55:47

    BUSROEBut, you know, again, we're helping our own community, but then we see the needs in Louisiana, we help there, and then, you know, we -- I served in Haiti for eight years, and after the earthquake there, you know, we were overwhelmed by the number of people who wanted to help and give in Haiti.

  • 11:56:05

    DESJARDINSI want to get some quick, unfortunate final thoughts to this important conversation. Susan Moeller, how do you advise people who want to do something good to get past, I guess, compassion fatigue? How do they decide when to help? Big question, short amount of time.

  • 11:56:21

    MOELLERYeah, I think it is making a choice of where you think you, yourself, can make a difference. And I think it's -- it's considering how can you get civically engaged.

  • 11:56:32

    DESJARDINSMichael Oreskes, NPR?

  • 11:56:33

    ORESKESI think informing yourself so that you can make decisions like that is important. It takes work to be informed, and a lot of people don't actually put the work in.

  • 11:56:44

    DESJARDINSAnd to do something that honestly is going to make a difference, not just click a button, yes, Ron Busroe.

  • 11:56:48

    BUSROEAnd people are making a difference today, the people who are giving, who have given financially, the people who volunteer, the people who have helped serve those meals, who have helped clean out people's homes. They are making a difference in people's lives in Louisiana.

  • 11:57:01

    DESJARDINSThank you, I know many of our callers are making a difference right now. Our phones were lit up during this discussion.

  • 11:57:06


  • 11:57:08

    DESJARDINSSo I want thank all of you, Lieutenant Colonel Ron Busroe of the Salvation Army, Michael Oreskes, news and editorial director, no less, of NPR, and Susan Moeller, the director of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda, also a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. Her book is "Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death." Thank you all very much for an excellent conversation. I'm Lisa Desjardins, and thank you also for joining us.

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