Sunday, October 7, 2007

Iraq Body Count: "A Very Misleading Exercise"

Medialens 3 October 2007 --
The mainstream media are continuing to use figures provided by the website Iraq Body Count (IBC) to sell the public a number for total post-invasion deaths of Iraqis that is perhaps 5-10% of the true death toll.
As numerous studies over many decades have shown, it is quite simply the structural role of the corporate media to defend established power by minimising, as far as possible, public perception of the costs to civilians of US-UK state violence. This role has not suddenly changed in regard to Iraq. On the contrary, media performance on Iraq has been a text book example of a corporate propaganda system acting to protect allied elite interests.
And yet this is currently the standard line in mainstream reporting, part of a wider attempt to present the occupation as a well-intentioned effort to achieve peace and democracy, rather than conquest and control.

Many thanks to Green Left Infoasis.

1 comment:

  1. As some people may already know, Medialens have been publishing/promoting material critical of IBC since early 2006. This has occasionally been extreme, as in the claim that IBC were "actively aiding and abetting in war crimes" (a comment posted to the Medialens website by the Medialens editors, 17/3/06 - see, p5).

    Given that the editors of Medialens (Cromwell and David Edwards) have now stated their case against IBC on Naspir, I think scrutiny of their arguments is warranted. I'd particularly like to draw attention to the following misrepresentations and errors in their article:

    1. Medialens writes:
    "It is striking that IBC link to a high-profile media report that so badly misrepresents its figures".

    This is a misrepresentation. The link is listed by IBC under the heading "Lists of victims or victim categories to signal the pervasive impact on every sector of Iraqi society". The purpose of the link is to provide an example of how media have used IBC's data on individual victims (the lower section of the article). There's no implication that IBC approve of the article's wording on totals.

    Interestingly, the article correctly notes that IBC's figures are "based on media reports as well as official figures from the Iraqi ministry of health and mortuaries", whilst getting its description of the Lancet 2004 study wrong (it didn't estimate "civilian" deaths).

    2. Medialens writes:
    "Whereas IBC have responded vigorously, indeed tirelessly, in responding [sic] to the 2004 and 2006 Lancet studies..."

    This is, at best, a gross exaggeration. IBC released only two documents commenting on Lancet 2006 (both mildly critical) and one on Lancet 2004 (uncritical). I provide links to these documents, so people can make up their own minds: (only part of this document deals with Lancet 2006)

    3. Medialens writes:
    "In the past, IBC’s [Iraq Body Count] response to the suggestion that violence prevents journalists from capturing many deaths has been, in effect, 'Prove it!'"

    This appears to be an outright falsehood. Medialens know that IBC have always stated that "many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media. That is the sad nature of war." This IBC statement has been quoted several times by the Medialens editors - eg here: - so they can't really excuse themselves by claiming ignorance.

    4. Medialens writes:
    "It was [Marc] Herold's Afghan Victim Memorial Project that inspired John Sloboda to set up IBC. Herold's 'most conservative estimate' of Afghan civilian deaths resulting from American/NATO operations is between 5,700 and 6,500. But, he cautions, this is 'probably a vast underestimate' [...] There is no reason to believe that the application of the same methodology in Iraq is generating very different results."

    IBC use the same approach as Herold, but they don't use the same methodology. And there are reasons to believe the approach in Iraq is generating different results than in Afghanistan. But I doubt that Medialens have looked into the matter in enough depth to know the reasons.

    5. Medialens writes:
    "...what IBC is doing to promote or reduce the confusion".

    This is an unworthy insinuation, suggesting IBC are "promoting" confusion, but providing no examples of this.

    6. Medialens writes:
    "Well, the bureau chief of one of three Western media agencies providing a third of IBC’s data from Iraq sent this email to a colleague last year (the latter asked us to preserve the sender’s anonymity)"

    Medialens cited anonymous epidemiologists in their earlier criticisms of IBC, and it was noteworthy then, as it is now with this anonymous "bureau chief" and "colleague", that these unnamed sources weren't able to send their comments directly to IBC (who would, of course, have treated them in confidence). In effect it amounts to 3rd-hand rumour-mongering.

    7. Medialens writes:
    "...a new ORB poll revealing that 1.2 million Iraqis had been murdered since the 2003 invasion"

    This isn't accurate. A new ORB poll estimates (not "reveals") that 1.2 million had been murdered. I mention this as Medialens make a big issue of the importance of accuracy (eg the need to distinguish "deaths" from "reported deaths").

    8. Medialens writes:
    "Why is it important for IBC [...] to challenge the methodology and conclusions of epidemiological studies published in the Lancet..."

    IBC didn't challenge Lancet 2004, so Medialens are wrong to write "studies" (plural). And IBC's expressions of scepticism over Lancet 2006 are no more out of place than those from Jon Pedersen of the UNDP Iraq study, demographer Beth Osborne Daponte, Fritz Scheuren, a past president of the American Statistical Association, Professor Hans Rosling and Dr Johan Von Schreeb at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Oxford physicists Neil Johnson and Sean Gourley, Debarati Guha-Sapir, Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), etc, etc.

    9. Medialens writes:
    " data collectors, IBC are not in a position to comment authoritatively on the impact of violence on the capacity of journalists to report accurately from Iraq. As data collectors, they have no more insight, no deeper understanding, than anyone else."

    One could equally argue that Medialens "are not in a position to comment authoritatively" on this matter. All they (or anyone else, including leading epidemiologists) can do is quote the findings of a few researchers. In other words, it's not really an argument.

    10. Medialens writes:
    "Secondly, while IBC’s self-described task does indeed require only “care and literacy”, does not the task of challenging peer-reviewed science published by some of the world’s leading epidemiologists require very much more? Does it not, in fact “require statistical analysis or extrapolations,”..."

    Not necessarily. It doesn't require "statistical analysis" to observe that half a million death certificates are missing if the Lancet 2006 figure is believed. It doesn't require epidemiological expertise to observe that there have been contradictions in the accounts of the Lancet team's description of sampling, or that the sampling methodology as published wouldn't give you "random" street selection. You don't need professional qualifications to appreciate how important random sampling is, etc.

    The rhetorical basis of the Medialens alert is: "how dare these data collectors tirelessly and vigorously criticise an epidemiological study". It's a rather feeble and misleading argument - based on one innocuous comment made by John Sloboda after being subjected to an email bombing accusing him of being an "amateur" and an "apologist" for war crimes (as documented here:, p5, 36-38, 47).

    I see something unpleasant and unworthy in the way Medialens have taken a single comment from John Sloboda and used it to insinuate that IBC are committing some major sins by publishing a few documents which express scepticism about the Lancet 2006 study. Remember that many others - including non-epidemiologists and epidemiologists - have expressed similar doubts and raised the same types of questions as IBC have done. Why aren't all these other people being subjected to a Medialens campaign?


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