A Question of Numbers

Anywhere between 80,000 and 1.2 million Iraqi civilians have died since the start of the war. Why won't the media report the correct number?

Unlike most journalists, Ziad al-Ajili carries an AK-47 assault rifle with him wherever he goes at night. The head of the Iraqi Journalistic Freedom Observatory, al-Ajili can't walk down the street without turning around every time he hears footsteps.

"It's too dangerous for journalists," says al-Ajili in a phone interview from Baghdad. "It's especially dangerous if you're a western journalist, but even if you're an Iraqi journalist, you can be shot anytime you go outside."

A Question of Numbers
Photo: Benjamin Lowy/Corbis

With more than 120 journalists killed since the start of the war, Iraq has become the most deadly combat zone for the media since the Second World War. The relentless violence has kept journalists from venturing into the deadly streets and from being able to tell the world how many Iraqi civilians have lost their lives in this bloodbath.

"It is very sad," says al-Ajili, who estimates that nearly half-a-million of his countrymen have been killed. "We are in hell, and nobody knows how many have died."

In a country where being a journalist is so dangerous that simply carrying a pen and notepad is reason enough to be killed, discovering the true number of civilian casualties can seem an impossible task. Most deaths in Iraq happen in inaccessible parts of the country, and Iraqi institutions responsible for the dead offer wildly divergent statistics. But while the number of civilian casualties is estimated to be anywhere between 80,000 and 1.2 million, the chaos that is keeping reporters from uncovering the real death toll is being exploited by the Pentagon.

Learning its lessons from Vietnam, where the exposure of civilian causalities turned the public against the war, the US military has either ignored or underreported civilian deaths. General Tommy Franks, who directed the Iraq invasion, famously said, "We don't do body counts." Refusing to acknowledge the dead, the one institution that has both the access and resources to find an accurate figure has worked to suppress the story. And since so many reporters have fallen under the spell of the military's sophisticated public relations machine, the media has come to accept that the death count is either unattainable or much lower than it really is.

Resigned to its limitations, the media has opted to quote Iraq Body Count's controversial claim of 80,000 deaths. Although IBC only counts a civilian death if it has been reported in at least two English media sources, journalists often use the figure since it doesn't stray too far from the US claim. However, the IBC's number stands in astronomical contrast from the 1.2 million dead Iraqis that the respected UK-based polling firm, Opinion Research Business (ORB), recently stated. The vast difference not only shows how confusing the count is, but highlights the media's own failings in exposing the true scope of the crisis.

When journalists quote the IBC, they are only referencing their own reports, while creating the illusion of a separate, reliable source. They also do so at the cost of quoting the ORB number or the 2006 Lancet medical journal survey that found roughly 650,000 civilian casualties. Although the Lancet study uses scientific methods that have been proven accurate everywhere from Darfur to Kosovo, journalists often downplay the results by contesting them with the manipulated US military figures.

Les Roberts, one of the two authors in the Lancet study, says many US journalists have fallen prey to post-9/11 patriotism or are too sheltered in their hotels to understand the extent of the havoc. But despite the challenges, Roberts insists journalists could verify the study by following his formula.

"Of all the scientific controversies of recent years, this one has got to be the easiest to evaluate," says Roberts. "How many Iraqi families would a journalist have to call to decide whether or not it's one in 40 people or whether it's one in 300 people that have died? The press, by and large, haven't been willing to do that."

After being fooled in the lead up to the Iraq War, the media are once again allowing the Bush administration to control the most crucial question of the war – how many innocent civilians lost their lives for a war based on lies? While public opinion can stomach minor causalities, it can rarely contain outrage when hundreds of thousands perish. Even in the chaos and connivance of Iraq, it's the responsibility of journalists to find a way to relay the truth about the carnage. The question now is whether the media are up to the job.

44 comments on the article “A Question of Numbers”

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I agree with the above comments from Alexandra, Roto, Jim that 80,000 should never be thought of as a 'low' number of deaths. Not everyone shares this view, however. For example, the people behind the Lancet 2006 study at John Hopkins recently published an article which included the following line about Iraq Body Count: 'The low numbers of Iraqi deaths reported by IBC provide comfort to many'. Of course, this is outrageous and I emailed them to say so. They've now removed that line a few people complained. What you may not know is that a group of people who support the Lancet study centered around a UK media criticism website has promoted the view that IBC are: 'actively aiding and abetting in war crimes', based on their view that Lancet is right and IBC wrong. See: http://tinyurl.com/ytb6yy page 5. Sean Condon sounds as if he may have bought into some of the misinformation spread by this group, given that his errors consistently favour Lancet and disfavour IBC - although I can't be certain of this; he may have produced his errors independently. This is what my corrections, above, attempt to clear up. The important issue is that there has been a bloody mass slaughter which hasn't begun to receive the attention it deserves in the US or UK media. Iraq Body Count should be praised for its work in getting a reliable absolute minimum baseline figure out there. But, unfortunately, some people want to see studies such as IBC discredited, and they will spread disinformation for this purpose.

John Tirman

I write to address a couple of Robert's points. I commissioned the study that appeared in the Lancet in Oct 06, and follow this debate very closely. The Iraq Ministry of Health survey is a useful addition to the other four surveys. But it's estimate of deaths by violence is clearly too low. We know this because the rate of death of violence is flat throughout the war, whereas every other account has violence rising sharply through mid-2007. The survey data tables also show very large number of excess deaths from non-violence between 250,000 and 300,000. Many of these are in categories, like unexplained injuries or road accidents, that very well could have been violent deaths. Respondents were likely to hedge on their accounts because the interviewers were from the Ministry of Health, at that time controlled by Moktada al Sadr. There was also an undercount, as they did not survey 11% of the most dangerous clusters. So the MoH survey and Lancet 2 are not that different; and indeed Lancet 1 and the MoH are very similar. ILCS is also closer, since they acknowledge that a missing category raises their estimate by 1.5x. MoH total mortality is 400,000 or more for June 2006. On Iraq Body Count, their methods are simply not adequate. The surveillance system is always changing. It cannot capture all fatalities, cannot easily distinguish civilian v. noncivilians, and, most important, cannot calibrate what they are missing. As Robert says, many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media, but we do not know how many are unreported, and this is always changing because the media is always changing, the health system is always changing, etc. IBC altered its method in December 07 to one English-language source, which itself is a sign. Their data have not been verified by other studies that I'm aware of as I explain with MoH. The larger point here is that it is extremely difficult to estimate or count; the five surveys show a certain congruence, which is encouraging, but the variations are due mainly to the sheer difficulty of conducting surveys during a war. Clearly, however, the number of deaths attributable to the war now standin the half million or more range, and this is something as many readers here note that is rarely discussed in our public life, which is a great tragedy for all concerned.
For more, see http://web.mit.edu/humancostiraq

Tyler Bass

Regarding Robert's post, my question is about the Lancet study, of which I had heard claim regarding its methods' use in Kosovo.

Mr. Tirman, I am a journalist for RVA Magazine based in Virginia who has had a longtime research interest in these matters, as have my organizations' readers. Please get in touch with me at tylerbass at gmail dot com.


I take issue with comments made here by John Tirman, commissioner of the Lancet 2006 study. Firstly, he mistakenly says of the WHO/MoH study: 'MoH total mortality is 400,000 or more'. The WHO study doesn't provide a figure for 'total mortality'. It provides crude death rates only, and simple extrapolation from these to 'total mortality' shouldn't be ascribed to the WHO study, for reasons made clear by the study's authors. The WHO study provides the figure of 151,000 violent deaths, which is sharply at odds with the Lancet 2006 figure of 601,000 violent deaths. Tirman says the 'MoH survey and Lancet 2 are not that different'. In fact they disagree by 450,000 violent deaths. Tirman's explanation for the difference, ie that WHO is wrong, is no more than speculation. Other people, experts in the field, have different views. Paul Spiegel, an epidemiologist at the United Nations High Commission on Refugees in Geneva, said of the WHO study: his does seem more believable to me than Lancet 2006 ... 'What they have done that other studies have not is try to compensate for the inaccuracies and difficulties of these surveys, triangulating to get information from other sources'. The WHO authors write that both their own study and Iraq Body Count indicate that the Lancet 2006 study 'considerably overestimated the number of violent deaths. To reach the 925 violent deaths per day reported by Burnham et al Lancet for June 2005 through June 2006, as many as 87% of violent deaths would have been missed in the IFHS WHO and more than 90% in the Iraq Body Count. This level of underreporting is highly improbable, given the internal and external consistency of the data and the much larger sample size and qualitycontrol measures taken in the implementation of the IFHS.' Tirman also misrepresents Iraq Body Count. He says: 'IBC altered its method in December 07 to one English-language source, which itself is a sign'. He doesn't say what this is a 'sign' of, but his preceding comments would lead the uninformed reader to the wrong conclusion. I recommend that people read IBC's own account of the alleged 'change' to their 'method': http://www.iraqbodycount.org/analysis/reference/announcements/3/. I think it's regrettable that Tirman, as commissioner of the Lancet 2006 study, should be spending his time attacking and discrediting, in this way, studies whose results don't disagree with the one he commissioned.

Jason Canada

It's sad that people can be killed and never accounted for. We western world must be wiping out whole villages and families over there. Sick!


The surge has resulted in an 80% decrease in Iraqi deaths, and the numbers being used by antiwar activists are unsubstantiated, and often contradicted by other numbers. The war is not over, but we are certainly winning. Let us stand by our President so that we can leave victorious and with honor.

Tia Vamp

What's more devastating than this issue is that I am so exhausted and jaded by my misinformation that I and simply can't care anymore.


So knowing all this information, that the number of human deaths may be a high one or a higher one since I can't say that there is anything more atrocious about 1 million deaths versus 1 death, what are we doing about it? Are we doing anything more than preaching to the choir about the absurdity of war? Are we marching in the streets, hanging posters, buying network airtime, or anything else to promote the truth or demand justice? If we did, would it do any good anyway...?


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