Many Deaths Left Out of Iraq StoryWith U.S. forces under consistent attack in Iraq, months after George W. Bush declared "major combat" over on May 1, media routinely refer to the number of American soldiers killed. But many of those reports dramatically undercount the actual number of U.S. deaths since Bush's May1 address.
A recent NPR report (8/7/03) was typical: "These two deaths bring to 55 the number of U.S. forces killed in combat since May 1st, when President Bush declared major fighting had ended." A survey of transcripts from some leading broadcast news outlets--ABC World News Tonight, NBC Nightly News, CBS Evening News and National Public Radio-- found numerous reports that used the same phrasing. These media are making a distinction--one rarely explained to audiences--between combat and non-combat deaths, choosing in most cases to only report the former.
NPR used this formulation earlier this month (8/3/03): "The U.S. has suffered more than 50 combat fatalities since major fighting ended in May." The following day (8/4/03), it omitted the usual qualifier, rendering the report inaccurate: "So far, 52 American soldiers have died since major combat officially ended in Iraq" (8/4/03). In reality, the total U.S. dead was about twice that figure, as tallied by the website Iraq Coalition Casualty Count.
The broadcast TV networks tend to feature the lower number in their reports as well. "The total killed since President Bush declared the major combat over: 56 Americans," declared Campbell Brown (NBC Nightly News, 8/8/03). In another reference to Bush's May 1 speech, ABC's John Cochran reported (World News Tonight, 8/8/03): "Since the president gave that assurance, 59 Americans have been killed, 399 wounded." CBS Evening News reported (8/8/03) that since Bush's comments, "56 U.S. troops have been killed, including one last night, a guard from the 82nd Airborne, shot while on patrol in Baghdad."
Some might suggest that using a casualty figure that includes non-combat deaths would portray the war as more deadly and dangerous than it really is. But non-combat fatalities clearly include deaths that are a result of the war; car accidents are often a result of speeding to avoid ambushes, for example, and the heavy battle gear troops are forced to wear contributes to heat-related fatalities. As Editor & Publisher's Greg Mitchell wrote (7/17/03), "Even if killed in a non-hostile action, these soldiers are no less dead, their families no less aggrieved. And it's safe to say that nearly all of these people would still be alive if they were still back in the States."
In a few unusual reports, news outlets have tallied up all the U.S. military deaths in Iraq. On July 28, NPR reported that "the number of Americans killed in action since President Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1 now stands at about 50. An equal number of U.S. troops have died from other causes during that time." In an August 9 report on CBS Evening News, CBS anchor Thalia Assuras reported that "since the proclaimed end of major combat, 119 soldiers have died in the line of duty." ABC World News Tonight (7/21/03) reported that "95 U.S. troops now have died in Iraq since President Bush declared the end of major combat on May 1st, 38 of them in what the military calls hostile acts" (ABC, 7/21/03).
Iraqi casualties, especially since Bush's May 1 declaration, are barely on the media radar. Most references to life in Iraq since then offer few details on the number of Iraqi dead or injured. "Fifty-four American troops killed in the last 100 days. There's no exact count of the Iraqis killed, or robbed, or raped," reported NBC's Richard Engle (8/9/03). While an exact total is impossible to verify, the website Iraq Body Count lists dozens of Iraqi deaths since May 1, many of whom were killed by U.S. forces.
Asked to describe Iraqi perceptions of the United States, NPR reporter Anne Garrels said: "Rightly or wrongly, Iraqis believe their lives count for little in the eyes of the Americans, who dutifully tally the Americans killed, but give no numbers on Iraqis who were killed, whether they're guilty or innocent" (8/3/03). While the Iraqis may be right about the higher priority given to U.S. vs. Iraqi deaths, not even all U.S. casualties are being fully acknowledged--and that shortcoming applies not just to the Pentagon, but to media as well.
FAIR suggests that the public contact media outlets and encourage them to report the complete totals for U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq, and not just those labeled "hostile fire" or "combat" deaths by the Pentagon. Contact information follows:
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This story was published on September 16, 2003.