- In Alerts 2006
- Post 14 March 2006
- Last Updated on 14 March 2006
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On January 25 and 26, Media Lens published a two-part Media Alert: ‘Paved With Good Intentions - Iraq Body Count, Parts 1 and 2’. We reported how we had searched the Iraq Body Count (IBC) database for incidents involving the mass killing of Iraqi civilians by US-UK forces between January-June 2005. We found, for example, 58 incidents of a minimum of 10+ deaths. Of these, just one was attributed to ’coalition’ action - a US airstrike. By contrast, 54 incidents of 10+ deaths were clearly attributed to the insurgency.
We found that the first 18 pages of the IBC database, covering the period between July 2005 and January 2006, contained just six references to ’coalition’ helicopter attacks and airstrikes killing civilians. Our research revealed that the IBC database consistently features the same bias - massive numbers of deaths caused by insurgents as compared to a tiny number caused by the ‘coalition’.
We argued that a major reason for this bias is that IBC relies heavily on Western media with a long history of whitewashing, and apologising for, Western crimes against humanity. The media that have supplied information for its database have, unsurprisingly, lavished praise on IBC, affording it the kind of deference and respect usually reserved for official sources. In reality, IBC is not primarily an Iraq Body Count, it is not even an Iraq Media Body Count, it is an Iraq Western Media Body Count.
A poster to the Media Lens message board highlighted the irony:
“I love the fact that journalists just don't see the inherent problems with reporting the IBC figures. The journalists imbedded in Iraq spend most of the time in the Green Zone or visiting, with the military, the sites of the latest insurgent outrage. They then file reports of those deaths in their respective papers.
“The journalists then recognise that they are missing a lot of the 'action' and so use the IBC figure, presenting it as a grand total of Iraqi deaths. They seem to be able to ignore that this figure is gathered from the reports they have filed - so of course it doesn't capture the vast amount of deaths they miss.” (‘Sam’, Media Lens message board, March 8, 2006)
In response to our January alert, Stephen Soldz, Director of the Center for Research, Evaluation, and Program Development at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, wrote an extremely insightful article. Soldz observed that IBC does acknowledge the limits to their work:
“But, like many academic researchers throwing in a pro forma ‘limitations of the study,’ this acknowledgment is done in such a way as to give it little emphasis. For example, in their July, 2005 report A Dossier of Civilian Casualties 2003-2005, on page 24 of 28, in a discussion of why they use their ‘maximum’ estimates [they cite a range of deaths from a ‘minimum’ to a ‘maximum,’ but the ‘maximum’ is of reported deaths, not of likely deaths], they state ‘even our max figure is likely to under-represent the full toll, given that not every death is officially recorded or reported.’ Certainly this language gives no indication that their maximum may, in fact, radically underestimate the true toll.” (Soldz, ‘When Promoting Truth Obscures the Truth:
More on Iraqi Body Count and Iraqi Deaths,’ ZNet, February 5, 2006;
The seriousness of this omission - given the vast media (and indeed political) coverage afforded IBC - can hardly be overstated.
Soldz criticised our analysis for failing to draw sufficient attention to a further flaw in IBC methodology - the difficulty in reporting from Iraq and the absence of Western reporters from most of the country. IBC reveals that its sources are "predominantly Western", with the "most prevalent" being "the major newswires and US and UK newspapers". (http://reports.iraqbodycount.org/
In its report 'A dossier of civilian casualties 2003-2005', IBC noted that just three Western press agencies - Associated Press, Agence France Presse, and Reuters - provided one-third of all stories. Soldz commented:
“[T]here is simply no reason to believe that even a large fraction of Iraqi civilian combat-related deaths are ever reported in the Western media, much less, have the two independent reports necessary to be recorded in the IBC database. Do these few agencies really have enough Iraqi reporters on retainer to cover the country? Are these reporters really able comprehensively to cover deaths in insurgent-held parts of Iraq? How likely is it that two reporters from distinct media outlets are going to be present at a given site where deaths occur? How many of the thousands of US bombings have been investigated by any reporter, Western or Iraqi? Simply to state these questions is to emphasize the fragmentary nature of the reporting that occurs and thus the limitations of the IBC database.”
As Soldz writes, if IBC believes that the vast majority of Iraqi deaths are reported by the Western media and, so, covered by their database, IBC should provide an argument to that effect. But IBC does not provide such an argument:
“Neither do they remind readers of these potential limitations in any way that would attract attention to them and decrease the ability of others to deliberately misuse the IBC numbers.”
Soldz summed up the problem well:
“Producing ‘conservative,’ bottom-line estimates that are known to be inaccurate can be a useful research technique in some cases. Such figures help to remind readers that there is a phenomenon - in this case, Iraqi civilian deaths caused by the conflict - and to thus focus attention upon it. In the early days of the war and occupation, IBC's figures played such a role... Conservative estimates lose their value, however, when they serve to obscure, detracting attention from the true magnitude of the phenomenon. Thus, as the fighting has intensified and as other estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths have become available, IBC's low-ball estimates have increasingly been used to mask the true magnitude of the suffering, rather than as a call for better, more precise estimates.”
A perfect example of this masking effect was provided by the Independent’s Andy McSmith on March 4. McSmith reported that the war in Iraq “has cost the lives of 103 British troops, 2,300 US soldiers, and up to 30,000 Iraqis”. (McSmith, ‘Blair: “God will be my judge on Iraq“’, The Independent, March 4, 2006; http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/politics/article349125.ece)
McSmith was challenged by activist Gabriele Zamparini of The Cat’s Dream (http://thecatsdream.com). Zamparini asked:
“What’s the source of that number, ‘up to 30,000 Iraqis‘? Were you referring to Mr Bush’s ‘30,000, more or less‘ ? Were you referring to the numbers provided by Iraq Body Count?” (Forwarded to Media Lens, March 6, 2006)
“The source of the 30,000 figure was Iraq Body Count. I am aware of the criticism that it is a 'passive' source of information, in that it does not send canvassers out to do random sampling, but it is respected and reliable.
There has been a lot written about the Lancet study, which was professionally conducted but under difficult conditions, but which necessarily relied on a small sample with a wide margin or error. They estimated 8,000-194,000 'excess deaths', and put the probable total at 98,000. This included increases in infant mortality, traffic accidents etc, with 60% directly attributable to the violence. It is the small sample and very wide margin of error that makes people nervous about the Lancet figure.
Thank you for the email
Andy McSmith” (Forwarded to Media Lens, March 6, 2006)
This is depressing indeed. As far back as last August, Les Roberts, lead author of the Lancet report, had already responded to exactly this criticism made by Terry Kirby and Mary Dejevsky, McSmith’s colleagues at the Independent. On August 22, 2005, Roberts wrote to them:
“I understand that you feel that the sample was small: this is most puzzling. 142 post-invasion deaths in 988 households is a lot of deaths, and for the setting, a lot of interviews. There is no statistical doubt mortality is up, no doubt that violence is the main cause, and no doubt that the coalition forces have caused far more of these violent deaths than the insurgents (p<.0000001).
"In essence this is an outbreak investigation. If your readers hear about a sample with 10 cases of mad cow disease in 1000 British citizens randomly tested, I am sure they would have no doubt there was an outbreak. In 1993, when the US Centers for Disease Control randomly called 613 households in Milwaukee and concluded that 403,000 people had developed Cryptosporidium in the largest outbreak ever recorded in the developed world, no one said that 613 households was not a big enough sample. It is odd that the logic of epidemiology embraced by the press every day regarding new drugs or health risks somehow changes when the mechanism of death is their armed forces.” (Email to the Independent, August 22, 2005)
The idea that it is “the small sample and very wide margin of error that makes people nervous about the Lancet figure“ is one of the great media falsehoods of recent years - it is simply not true.
We sent McSmith’s response to Roberts, who responded:
“Many people have chosen to quote one third of the Lancet results and call them ‘the results.’ There were three important findings. In the 97% of Iraq represented by our sample that excluded Anbar Province, we ‘estimated 8,000-194,000 “excess deaths“, and put the probable total at 98,000’ as stated by the Independent. But we also reported that violence had gone from only about 2% of deaths to the majority of deaths.
"The one cluster that gave us insight into Anbar Province suggested a quarter of the population had been killed. When all three of these findings were considered, we concluded 17 months ago that there was little chance the death toll was below 100,000. Indeed, our interpretation section on the front page of the Lancet report begins stating, ‘Making conservative assumptions, we estimate that about 100,000 excess deaths, or more have happened since the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.’ That sentence is the most accurate summary of what we found and I can not tell you why the Independent chose to focus on only one third of the findings.” (Email to Media Lens, March 7, 2006)
Consider, further, a recent note in the Guardian’s ‘Corrections and clarifications’ on February 6, 2006:
“A table accompanying the report headlined Blair refuses to be swayed by death of 100th British soldier (page 1, February 1) gave the figure of ‘up to 31,800’ for Iraqi civilian casualties. This is the minimum figure given by Iraq Body Count. It should have read ‘at least 31,800‘". (www.guardian.co.uk/corrections/story/0,,1702930,00.html)
It is remarkable that IBC - a deeply flawed website - has acquired this kind of reputation among journalists. In a recent article for the website AlterNet, Les Roberts wrote that the estimate of 20,000 to 30,000 civilian deaths commonly cited in the American press are too low, "most likely by a factor of five or ten". (Roberts, 'Do Iraqi Civilian Casualties Matter?' AlterNet, February 14, 2006; www.alternet.org/story/31508/)
Only one conclusion can be drawn: that the journalists citing the IBC figures have not studied the IBC database and so have not seen the massive bias and gaps in reported deaths.
Exchange With IBC Co-Founder John Sloboda
On February 10, we wrote to IBC co-founder John Sloboda:
Hope you're well. We sent you our 2-part Media Alert on Iraq Body Count on January 26. Did you receive it okay? Stephen Soldz has now also added some interesting comments on similar themes:
Are you planning to respond?
David Edwards and David Cromwell
We received a reply on the same day:
Yes David, we saw your pieces and the Soldz piece. We have sent a short ‘holding reply’ to some of the people who wrote to us in response to reading your piece. We are still consulting on if, how, and when to respond more substantively. Sincerely, John.
Receiving no further response, we wrote again on March 4:
In an earlier email (January 24), you wrote to us:
"Our aim is to be completely transparent about who we are, why we do what we do, our methodology, and our data. The whole purpose of our work is to 'lift the lid off' any secrecy about innocent deaths caused by our governments and constantly put them right back into the centre of public gaze."
And yet it is now some six weeks since we published our two-part Media Alert challenging IBC's methodology and figures, and we have so far received no reply from you. Meanwhile, your figures continue to be employed as a tool of propaganda by the mainstream media... [We cited Andy McSmith’s comments in the Independent - see above]
In your February 10 email you wrote: "We are still consulting on if, how, and when to respond more substantively."
Surely there are two options available to IBC - you can provide rational counter-arguments to those offered by Media Lens and Stephen Soldz, or you can make meaningful changes in light of our criticisms.
How can not responding be considered a reasonable and honourable option given the consequences of inaction, if our criticism is valid, for the people of Iraq?
David Edwards and David Cromwell
Sloboda responded on March 5:
Thank you for your email of March 4 2006. Taking our current workload into consideration, and observing the nature of the responses that our earlier correspondence with you has elicited, we feel that the best way to respond to all of this is to take those criticisms we consider valid into account in our future work, rather than engage in further direct correspondence. You will be able to observe developing events on our website, including some new publications in train, and you can judge for yourself whether these address your concerns and the concerms of those who have written in similar vein. We believe the honorable thing to do with or very limited time is to continue the work we started, improving it as and when we are able, in response to legitimate and constructive criticism. This is, in essence, what we told correspondents who wrote to us in response to your two published pieces on us.
We wrote again on March 6:
Many thanks. Your unwillingness to respond openly to the detailed and substantive arguments we have put to you is remarkable. Editors and journalists at the BBC, ITN, Channel 4, the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent and the Financial Times have replied, sometimes repeatedly and at great length, to our Media Alerts. Is IBC even less accountable to critics, and to the public, than they are?
IBC's figures are being consistently exploited by mainstream propagandists in an increasingly desperate attempt to bury the true scale of the horror inflicted on Iraq by Britain and the United States. Les Roberts, lead author of the Lancet report, has suggested that the 20,000-30,000 death toll widely cited in the US (and UK) media is low "most likely by a factor of five or ten". (Roberts, 'Do Iraqi Civilian Casualties Matter?' AlterNet, February 14, 2006; www.alternet.org/story/31508/)
We welcome changes to the IBC website. But we believe the honourable thing to do with your time would be to write a series of open and honestly self-critical press releases to all editors and news correspondents at all media outlets as a matter of real urgency. These statements could explain how your figures are being abused (with journalists writing of 30,000 Iraqi deaths rather than 30,000 +civilian+ Iraqi deaths), why your figures are likely extremely low, why your database is heavily biased in favour of the 'coalition', and why your methodology is flawed by your reliance on patently unreliable Western media sources.
Making quiet alterations to your site will do little or nothing to counter the propaganda campaign you have unwittingly assisted, and will do little to help the people of Iraq.
David Edwards and David Cromwell
Stephen Soldz recently commented on IBC’s refusal to respond openly:
"As IBC knows, the question of the magnitude of civilian casualties resulting from this war is critical for assessing the war's impact. Estimates such as IBC's are only of value to the extent that they reflect the true situation on the ground. It is to be hoped that IBC will openly and publicly acknowledge, through press releases or similar mechanisms, that their estimates are severe undercounts and that the real number of war-related deaths in Iraq is far, far, higher. To not make this point perfectly clear allows their work to serve the interests of those who seek to minimize this tragic loss of life." (Email to Media Lens, March 7, 2006)
We accept that the editors of IBC are well intentioned. But we are all, of course, accountable for the moral consequences of our actions. As the world braces itself for future conflicts, few moral issues are more pressing than the need for an honest and open accounting of the consequences of the US-UK war of aggression in Iraq.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to IBC co-founder John Sloboda
Write to Iraq Body Count
Write to Andy McSmith at the Independent