Wednesday, October 11, 2006

NYT: Iraqi Dead May Total 600,000, Study Says" (S. Tavernise)

A team of American and Iraqi public health researchers has estimated that 600,000 civilians have died in violence across Iraq since the 2003 American invasion, the highest estimate ever for the toll of the war here.
The figure breaks down to about 15,000 violent deaths a month, a number that is quadruple the one for July given by Iraqi government hospitals and the morgue in Baghdad and published last month in a United Nations report in Iraq. That month was the highest for Iraqi civilian deaths since the American invasion.
But it is an estimate and not a precise count, and researchers acknowledged a margin of error that ranged from 426,369 to 793,663 deaths.
It is the second study by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. It uses samples of casualties from Iraqi households to extrapolate an overall figure of 601,027 Iraqis dead from violence between March 2003 and July 2006.
The findings of the previous study, published in The Lancet, a British medical journal, in 2004, had been criticized as high, in part because of its relatively narrow sampling of about 1,000 families, and because it carried a large margin of error.

The above is from Sabrina Tavernise's "Iraqi Dead May Total 600,000, Study Says" in this morning's New York Times. [CORRECTION, ARTICLE WRITTEN BY SABRINA TAVERNISE AND DONALD G. MCNEIL JR.] In terms of reporting, it continues a strong rebound by Tavernise. And there's another point on that we'll get to (either in this entry or the next). But let's focus on the New York Times for a minute. Tavernise wasn't the "first wave" of Green Zoners for the paper. We're not speaking of her for what follows. We're talking of the ultimate embed (Dexy) and his mentor (Burnsie). If they hadn't been so busy go-go-boying it up in the Green Zone possibly they could have done what any novice report just emerging from the police beat would have known to do -- check with the morgues. If the go-go boys had been a little less interested in jotting down official statements, they could have checked with the morgues. And back then, in the early days of the invasion, when there was more movement outside the Green Zone, they could have set up a system that would still be in place now (when they're all confined to the Green Zone except when escorted around by the US military). If they had, establishing the death toll for the Iraqis wouldn't be so difficult.

It's also true that back then the paper of record wasn't interested in Iraqi deaths. Talking those realities might spoil the war buzz they were grooving on -- they and most of the media. The kinda-culpa hasn't been followed up on (readers have yet to see any kind of study, let alone retractions, for the most egregious pieces the Times published before the run up to the war and in the first years of it). But if the paper's attempting to figure out what they should do differently next time (they aren't, they're hoping everyone's forgotten), one thing they can do differently in the next war (and there will be a next one, either under Bully Boy or the next one) is to insist that the reporters immediately set up communications networks with morgues and hospitals. That won't cover all the dead but it will allow them to count some of the dead.

The original study, published in The Lancet, was pooh-pahed largely because the war buzz was still on. Since then the press has run many 'extrapolated' figures of other regions (community members will instantly think of one region in particular), often without labeling the figures as extrapolated, and, you'll note, no one raises an eyebrow. Unlike other instances, where someone with no background offers up 'extrapolations,' the original study and the current one was done by actual professionals. Will it make a difference this time? Or is the war buzz still so intense that even those choosing not to partake respond as though they're suffering from a contact high?

Martha notes David Brown's "Study Claims Iraq's 'Excess' Death Toll Has Reached 655,000" (Washington Post):

A team of American and Iraqi epidemiologists estimates that 655,000 more people have died in Iraq since coalition forces arrived in March 2003 than would have died if the invasion had not occurred.
The estimate, produced by interviewing residents during a random sampling of households throughout the country, is far higher than ones produced by other groups, including Iraq's government.

It is more than 20 times the estimate of 30,000 civilian deaths that President Bush gave in a speech in December. It is more than 10 times the estimate of roughly 50,000 civilian deaths made by the British-based Iraq Body Count research group.

It needs to be noted that the "30,000" and the "50,000" were both from the Iraq Body Count. That's the source for Bully Boy's figure. We don't use that here, IBC, we've never used it. Whatever it's original intent, it's long provided cover and misrepresented the actual deaths.
Dahr Jamail and Jeff Pflueger detailed the problems with that 'count' back in April:

Addressing the comments made by Bush regarding "30,000, more or less" dead Iraqis, Reif writes, "This is almost exactly the same as figures kept by Iraq Body Count." His report takes issue with IBC as well as Iraqi officials as it continues: "The problem with estimates provided by Iraqi officials and Iraq Body Count is that they only include those deaths that have resulted directly from violence. A much more comprehensive nationwide survey of all causes of mortality in Iraq was published in the Lancet in late October 2004 ... Any attempt to gauge mortality in the midst of a conflict will be marked by a degree of uncertainty, but what should be beyond dispute is that the Lancet study is based on sound methodology. Yet in 2005 this continued to be questioned in the press [and later by IBC]. It is interesting that Roberts used nearly identical sampling techniques to study mortality in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2000, and that U.S. and British officials have quoted these findings without question in speeches condemning the killing in this case. Meanwhile, innocent Iraqis are continuing to be killed and wounded at an alarming rate. According to one recent estimate, nearly 800 were killed in January 2006, making it the deadliest month since September 2005."
Noam Chomsky writes about the body count controversy in his latest book, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy. Says Chomsky: "The estimates of Iraq Body Count are based on media reports, and are therefore surely well below the actual numbers. The Lancet study estimating 100,000 probable deaths by October 2004 elicited enough comment in England for the government to issue an embarrassing denial, but in the United States virtual silence prevailed." Chomsky goes on to add that "On conservative assumptions, it would be ... accurate to state ... that "as few as 100,000" died."

Now let's return to Tavernise's report because she presents something to readers that they haven't seen clearly in the Times before:

But the [American] military has not released figures of its own, giving only percentage comparisons. For example, it cited a 46 percent drop in the murder rate in Baghdad in August from July as evidence of the success of its recent sweeps. At a briefing on Monday, the military's spokesman declined to characterize the change for September.
The military has released rough counts of average numbers of Iraqis killed and wounded in a quarterly accounting report mandated by Congress. In the report, "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq," daily averages of dead and wounded Iraqi civilians, soldiers and police officers rose from 26 a day in 2004 to almost 120 a day in August 2006.

The body counts. Three people managed to write about that this summer. At the end of June, Nancy A. Youssef's"U.S.: Civilian deaths feeding insurgency" revealed that the military was keeping a count, had been since at least July 2005. Should have been big news. Few bothered to cover it. Two who did were Aaron Glantz ("Pentagon: Tell Us How Many Civilians You've Killed") and Juliana Lara Resende ("50,000 Dead, But Who's Counting?"). Not only did few bother to cover it, but some reports, after the news broke, were written by people who were apparently unaware that a count existed (or maybe just that it had been exposed). Tavernise's report may come as a shock to many Times readers since, at best, this count has been alluded to in previous reporting (more often it's been ignored or alluded to).

The press, the big press, could have long ago demanded that the military release its count (which is surely an undercount -- we noted that before the count broke this summer), they could have filed freedom of information release requests, they could have used their editorials to demand that the American people have access to the information their tax dollars pay for. Didn't happen. Will it ever?

Who knows. But some readers of today's Times may be a little confused because reality on this issue (as well as many others) has been hidden from them for so long.

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