US Media Mishandle the Story on 100,000 Dead Iraqi Civilians

Missing Information

The Lancet, a British medical journal, just published results of a study led by academics from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine that reported a surprisingly high number of civilian deaths in Iraq. The story broke three days before the US elections, on November 29, and even where it received prominent coverage, there has been little or no follow-up in the US. The media coverage of this information around the world, however, was much more intense, with quite a different focus.

In the American press, the story was often buried. Either editors simply chose to ignore it, or they paid scant attention to what they treated as merely an “additional detail”–as if 100,000 civilians dead as a result of the US invasion of Iraq meant little in the scheme of the “war on terrorism.”

Newspapers are supposed to report the facts: who, what, when, why, how, where, how much. In this case, the “where” also counts when it comes to the placement of the story. Many US newspapers mentioned this story–because it would have been impossible to ignore it–but they used positioning to prevent it from having the impact it deserved. (Was this the thinking?: “The less this story is read, the better it is for…”–the reader should fill in the blank.)

America vs. Human Rights

“The United States has long regarded itself as a beacon of human rights, as evidenced by an enlightened constitution, judicial independence, and a civil society grounded in strong traditions of free speech and press freedom. But the reality is more complex; for decades, civil rights and civil liberties groups have exposed constitutional violations and challenged abusive policies and practices. In recent years, as well, international human rights monitors have documented serious gaps in U.S. protections of the human rights of vulnerable groups. Both federal and state governments have nonetheless resisted applying to the U.S. the standards that, rightly, the U.S. applies elsewhere.”
Human Rights Watch

We have to go to page 16 in the Washington Post to see the story only briefly mentioned. The study wasn’t on the front page of the New York Times on Friday, October 29. They merely ran the article published in the International Herald Tribune, written by a journalist in France, and put this story in the middle of the news section, rather than on the front page, where such a major story should be expected to appear, especially in a leading national newspaper in a country at war.

In contrast, the French newspaper Le Monde published this revealing story on its front page, as the main story, as did the India Times. While these countries are not the main players, they chose to highlight this news more than their own domestic stories. The discrepancy between coverage of this story in the US as compared to the international treatment is dramatic, allowing the observer to infer that news coverage is being distorted in the US.

But let’s move back to the American press. Second case: Some American newspapers actually did report the facts of this story–but then they inserted elements to discredit what they just published. Rather than publishing the news and waiting for new developments or reader response, they create these counterpoints themselves.

Let’s have a look at the title of the story that was published in the Baltimore Sun: “Survey: Iraqi deaths higher,” subtitled “Hopkins-designed study says 100,000 civilians died; Prior estimates, 10,000 to 30,000; Brookings defense expert calls data ‘preposterous’ “

Through this convoluted title information, the paper creates doubt in the reader’s mind about the study’s veracity before the reader has even read the first paragraph. No doubt the reader will keep the “Brookings defense expert’s” point of view in mind while reading.

The Washington Post did the same thing. Here is their introduction: “The first attempts to independently estimate the loss of civilian life from the Iraqi war has concluded that at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians may have died because of the U.S. invasion. The analysis, an extrapolation based on a relatively small number of documented deaths [emphasis provided], indicated that many of the excess deaths have occurred due to aerial attacks by coalition forces, with women and children being frequent victims, wrote the international team of public health researchers making the calculations.”

“Extrapolation” is a loaded word, sometimes used to substitute for “wild guess.” And “relatively small number” is not defined; relative to what? One would expect that, instead of inserting these negative ideas, the report would have stated that the Lancet is a pre-eminent British medical journal, whose articles are peer-reviewed prior to publication (something that cannot be said for many “news” stories appearing in the US media).

The critical elements added in counterpoint could appear to be a way to “balance” the information. But if that is so, why didn’t journalists in France, Australia, or India do the same? Why did they trust this study, and judge it unnecessary to mitigate the informatioon?

Both Le Monde and the British Guardian provided information about the research team leaders and the Lancet, something this writer did not observe in any of the versions of the story examined in the US press.

These foreign newspapers put this story on their front pages; they would not have done so if they did not trust this study, as they are quality papers that closely guard their credibility. They are cautious. They use the words of the study’s authors, who wrote that “the outcome [of the research] relies on cautious bases” and, as reported by Le Monde, “would need complementary research.” This paper, as well as the Australian Sydney Morning Herald, even quotes the report’s actual estimate of war-related mortality in Iraq: that “the exact numbers are likely between 80,000 and 194,000 death civilians.” This kind of “balance” makes more sense; why did it not appear in the American version of the story? Why do US media–in this case and in others this writer has observed–seem compelled to propose opposing points of view, especially from sources that are not equal. The researchers themselves provided sufficient nuances and caveats about their findings. Perhaps part of the problem is that the US media do not believe the public will understand information that has qualifiers and grey areas; providing simplistic evaluations by alleged “experts” makes the reporting easier, but less accurate. Or worse, perhaps the US media intentionally seek to distort or dismiss information that is not convenient.

The choice of a speaker is of paramount importance when seeking to “balance” a story. Why, then, would a reporter in this case choose to interview a person described as working for “a liberal-leaning think tank in Washington”? This person was quoted by both the Sun and the Post. He is reported as disputing the findings of the Lancet study, terming them “preposterous and politically driven.” He also called the 100,000 estimate “way, way, way too high.” Even if murder statistics were added, he said in the Post, the total number of Iraqi civilian deaths would not exceed 50,000.

Are readers then to presume that this one person–supposedly “liberal” and therefore ostensibly believable as a doubter of the study’s findings–constitutes a sufficient “expert” by himself to discount this scientific report?

In the November 4, 2003 issue of Army Times, this same “expert” is quoted as saying, regarding to the Iraqi war: “In terms of security, time is on our side.” Referring to the shootdown of a helicopter that had just happened, he added: “I don’t believe the resistance has the ability to do too many more dramatic things….Slower-than-hoped-for progress in resuscitating their economy and improving Iraqis’ quality of life is worrisome. ” Comparing the situation today with such a poor forecast, it is doubtful that this person is qualified to make any comment about Iraq today.

Further, in June 2003, regarding foreign policy, he also said in the Washington Post, “I would like to see Kerry talk about how we can win the war in Iraq in a broader way, how we can win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. I’d like him to be more visionary.” One can reasonably construe that he is closer to Bush’s position regarding the Iraqi war than to Kerry’s (or a “liberal’s”), regardless of how his employer is described in the US stories.

Furthermore, if balancing information is the goal of the press, how about reporting an opposite point of view, instead of one coming from what might be thought to be the same side? Why would a journalist discredit what is being reported? Is such distracting information really pertinent? Is it “fair”?

The next-to-last sentence of the Sun’s story highlights the “expert’s” point of view, quoting him as saying: “You can’t begin to make the argument that 100,000 were killed by American bombs and bullets. It’s a factor of 10 too high.”

The Post ends on this note, adding an additional “expert”: “But Garlasco of Human Rights Watch said it is extremely difficult to estimate civilian casualties, especially based on relatively small numbers. ‘I certainly think that 100,000 is a reach,’ Garlasco said. In addition, his group’s investigation indicated that the ground war, not the air war, caused more of the deaths that have occurred.” Thus, the means used to produce the study are challenged, and the Iraqis are implicated as causes of their own deaths through “the ground war”–ignoring the fact that the conflict would not have happened had the US not invaded.

Notice too that Garlasco’s quotation has been cut, indicating it could have been taken out of context. This man was a primary author of the December 2003 report, “Off Target: The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq.” (This aspect of his background is totally ignored, making his point of view appear to be contrary to the study’s.) Yet Garlasco is currently strongly denouncing US military methods, questioning only the accuracy of the number–something the study’s researchers themselves recognize, saying their goal is to show that other research has to be done to check out their mortality findings, and that such research must go farther than the first military estimates. This part of their comments, though important, is missing in most US publications, and where it is mentioned, as in the Boston Globe and the New York Times, the reporting is given so little prominence, it likely went unnoticed.

Media historically are supposed to embody the “fourth estate” in the US democracy, a bulwark against tyranny within and without. Based on close reading of what passes for “news” in the US press, an observer must conclude that there is definitely something wrong. The problem goes beyond traditional partisan opposition (though US media pretend to be “non-partisan” or “fair and balanced”), and even raises the question of responsibility.

A country at war has to be responsible for what it does. Its people at least should be interested in what it does. And the media must play an important part in the development of this awareness.

While in the real world “press objectivity” may be a utopian ideal, “press subjectivity” is the reality in the US–so much so that one can only hope that it’s an unconscious habit. To think otherwise is entirely too painful.

Mathilde Soyer, a political science student at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Rennes, France, is an intern with this newspaper.

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