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ABC (Under)counting Iraqi Dead

SOURCE: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
Given the difficulties inherit in gathering precise data on Iraqi deaths, journalists should cite a plausible range of casualty estimates, rather than using the lowest estimate available—as Sawyer and Stephanopoulos have done.
3/21/07—ABC News is marking the anniversary of the start of the Iraq War this week by reporting on its major survey of Iraqi public opinion. But when it comes to one fundamental tally of the cost of the war—the number of Iraqis who have been killed by the war—top ABC anchors are minimizing the death toll.

On the Sunday morning show This Week (3/18/07), George Stephanopoulos reported: "More than 3,200 U.S. military dead. At least 24,000 wounded. About 60,000 Iraqis killed." The next day on Good Morning America, his ABC colleague Diane Sawyer mentioned almost the same figures: "3,218 U.S. military fatalities and 24,042 U.S. wounded, not to mention the some 60,000 Iraqis who have been killed."

No source was given for the 60,000 figure by either anchor. The figure resembles the totals for Iraqi civilian deaths reported in English-language news reports by the Iraqi Body Count (IBC) project: between 59,326 and 65,160. (George W. Bush also appeared to rely on IBC's figures when asked in December 2005 how many Iraqis had been killed in the war; he gave the number of 30,000, which was close to IBC's tally at the time.)

Using IBC's count as an estimate of how many Iraqis have died in the war is sloppy reporting, however. For one thing, it is explicitly a count of *civilian* deaths, ignoring Iraqi combatants who died either resisting the U.S. invasion and occupation or defending the U.S.-backed government. Estimates for the number of Iraqi combatants killed in the initial invasion range from 7,600-10,800 (Project on Defense Alternatives, 10/20/03) to 13,500-45,000 (London Guardian, 5/28/03); the total of Iraqis killed fighting the U.S. has surely increased substantially in the four years that followed.

As for Iraqi forces allied with the U.S., the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count website has counted 6,301 deaths of Iraqi police and military, based on news reports, up to March 20, 2007. It's striking that even these allied deaths—nearly twice the number of U.S. forces killed—are often ignored in U.S. press accounts.

Any total based on official recordkeeping or news reports is almost certainly going to be incomplete—particularly in a country like Iraq, where reporters' well-grounded fear of being attacked by either side results in them seldom venturing out of Baghdad (or into most neighborhoods in Baghdad, for that matter). As IBC itself notes on its website, "It is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported."

In countries with functioning governmental institutions, reporters can rely on official censuses or health records. In Iraq, however, a proposed census was vetoed by the U.S. occupation government (Extra!, 3-4/04), and at this point it would probably be too dangerous to conduct one. And the Iraqi Ministry of Health, which maintains morgues and issues death certificates, has close ties to Shiite death squads, according to the U.S. military, making it a questionable source for casualty statistics (Extra! Update, 2/07). For what it's worth, the United Nations reviewed government records and death certificates and reported a civilian death toll of 34,000 for 2006 alone (New York Times, 1/17/07). And Iraqi Health Minister Ali al-Shamari estimated in November 2006 that 100,000 to 150,000 Iraqis had been killed by violent acts since early 2004.

The standard way to estimate death tolls in war-torn areas is to use epidemiological surveys based on a random sampling of the population. The United Nations made one such survey in 2004, estimating 24,000 war-related deaths in roughly the first year of the conflict. Using that as a minimum annual figure—since it's recognized that violence has greatly intensified since the first year of the occupation—produces roughly 100,000 as a conservative estimate of Iraqi deaths. A comprehensive demographic survey by Johns Hopkins University published in the medical journal Lancet (10/21/06) arrived at a much higher death toll for the Iraq War: between 400,000 and 900,000 "excess" deaths by violence in Iraq-civilians and combatants-since the beginning of the U.S. invasion, with 600,000 being the mostly likely statistical estimate.

Given the difficulties inherit in gathering precise data on Iraqi deaths, journalists should cite a plausible range of casualty estimates, rather than using the lowest estimate available—as Sawyer and Stephanopoulos have done.

In February, the Associated Press released a poll that found that while the U.S. public knows the death toll for U.S. servicemembers in Iraq, the median estimate for Iraqi deaths was 9,890. The findings are a damning indictment of the corporate media's reporting on Iraq. Journalists like Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos don't make things any better by severely low-balling the number of Iraqis who have died as a result of the war.

ACTION: Encourage ABC to use more accurate estimates of Iraqi deaths when reporting on the issue. Ask them to explain how they arrived at their 60,000 figure.

ABC's This Week

ABC's Good Morning America
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This story was published on March 22, 2007.