PolitiFact’s FEMA ‘clarification’: Was it enough?

When Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said Vice President Kamala Harris spoke words amounting to the claim that disaster victims might receive faster FEMA aid depending on the color of their skin, fact checkers leapt into action to defend the vice president. Fact checkers, including PolitiFact, said critics took Harris’ words out of context.

PolitiFact’s version of the fact check included the claim that the FEMA website didn’t even mention race or “equity”:

There is nothing on websites for Federal Emergency Management Association or the federal Disaster Assistance Improvement Program about race or equity, just information about where Floridians affected by Hurricane Ian can find information about how to receive federal aid.

In fact, the FEMA website features multiple pages and .pdf downloads describing its commitment, under the Biden administration, to “Equity” and the equitable distribution of resources. “Equitable,” as normally understood seems an appropriate stance, and FEMA’s website describes the term in that traditional sense. But the Biden/Harris campaign described “Equity” differently during the campaign to suggest measuring whether distribution is equitable using outcomes. That implies that one entity might receive whatever resources it needs to achieve the same outcome as a different entity.

Does FEMA adopt the Biden/Harris approach to “Equity” while describing its approach in the traditional sense?

FEMA and ‘underserved populations’

We found evidence FEMA favors prioritizing “underserved populations.” “Underserved populations” could include racial or ethnic groups, among others.

FEMA paradoxically claims that prioritizing underserved populations–measured by outcomes–will not reduce the resources available to other populations (emphasis in the original):

FEMA must direct its resources to eliminate disparities in these outcomes. FEMA assistance is not designed to solve societal inequities.

However, by intentionally directing resources to communities most in need, FEMA will be able to counteract systemic disaster inequities.

This does not mean that resources will be directed away from others in need of assistance. On the contrary, FEMA can work toward improving outcomes that benefit all communities.

We do not see how directing resources to communities deemed most in need and measuring that effort by outcomes can result in anything other than directing those resources away from others.

Clarification or Correction?

PolitiFact misinformed its audience that the FEMA website had nothing about “Equity” and made absolutely no mention of FEMA’s plan to emphasize equitable outcomes in its disaster response.

After Zebra Fact Check asked for a clarification or correction, PolitiFact opted for the former:

Clarification, Oct. 6, 2022: This story has been updated to clarify that the FEMA webpage for Hurricane Ian victims linked to in this story doesn’t mention race or equity. Elsewhere, the agency’s website does discuss its efforts regarding equity. The rating is unchanged.

We judge that PolitiFact’s “clarification” lacks transparency and misleads via ambiguity.

PolitiFact avoids admitting it made a false claim about the FEMA website as a whole. By framing its error as a clarification that the FEMA page it linked does not mention race or equity, readers may conclude PolitiFact’s original fact check falsely made it look as though that page did include references to race or equity. The clarification contains an ambiguity that hides from the reader the truth about PolitiFact’s mistake. PolitiFact’s error was not making it look like the linked page contained references to race or equity. Their error was falsely claiming that there was nothing at all on the FEMA website about race or equity.

Also, the so-called clarification does nothing to inform readers about FEMA’s plan to measure the equity of its emergency response according to outcomes.

In short, PolitiFact hid how it misinformed its audience and hid context relevant to its fact check.

PolitiFact should have issued a correction instead of a clarification, and should have added material to its fact check showing how FEMA policy may support Sen. Scott’s charge against the vice president.

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