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.

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.