Friday, February 15, 2008

Counting Iraqi Casualties -- and a Media Controversy,

John Tirman, E & P


The author commissioned the "Lancet" study recently attacked in a National Journal report and by the Wall Street Journal. He calls the criticism a "hatchet job," fraudulent or based on innuendo.

(February 14, 2008) -- (Commentary) One puzzling aspect of the news media’s coverage of the Iraq war is their squeamish treatment of Iraqi casualties. The scale of fatalities and wounded is a difficult number to calculate, but its importance should be obvious. Yet, apart from some rare and sporadic attention to mortality figures, the topic is virtually absent from the airwaves and news pages of America. This absence leaves the field to gross misunderstandings, ideological agendas, and political vendettas.

The upshot is that the American public—and U.S. policy makers, for that matter—are badly informed on a vital dimension of the war effort.

As an academic interested in the war’s violence, I commissioned a household survey in October 2005 to gauge mortality, and I naturally turned to the best professionals available—the Johns Hopkins University epidemiologists who had conducted such surveys before in Iraq, Congo, and elsewhere. Their survey of 1,850 households resulted in a shocking number: 600,000 dead by violence in the first 40 months of the war. The survey was extensively peer reviewed and published in the British medical journal, the Lancet, in October 2006.

The findings caused a ripple of interest (in part because President Bush, during a press conference, called the results "not credible") and stirred a very lively debate among the few people interested in the methods. By and large, however, the survey passed from public view fairly quickly, and the news media continued to cite the very low numbers produced by the Iraq Body Count, a U.K.-based NGO that counts civilian deaths through English-language newspaper reports.

Continued . . .

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