Friday, October 13, 2006

How The Media Covered The Lancet Study

A surprising inability to convey the study’s findings accurately

For at George Mason University, Robert Lichter, Ph.D., writes:
A new study has generated heavy news coverage with its finding that over 650,000 Iraqis have died as a direct or indirect result of the March 2003 US-led invasion. It has also created widespread controversy, largely because this total is far higher than any previous estimate, which creates political problems for President Bush and other supporters of the war. The study, which appeared in the British medical journal The Lancet, is a follow-up to a previous study that attracted similar criticism.

Surprisingly, however, some leading news outlets both here and abroad have proved unable to correctly state the major findings. Extrapolating from a randomly-based survey of Iraqi households, the researchers estimated that approximately 655,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the war, including 601,000 whose deaths involved some form of violence. These two numbers are the core of the current debate.

These figures were prominently displayed both in the article and in the press release sent out by the Lancet. Yet some major news organizations somehow failed to get them straight.

Most prominent among them was the New York Times, which headlined its article, "Iraqi dead may total 600,000, study says." Of course that number was 55,000 too low, because it referred only to the violent deaths.

One might argue that this error did not materially influence the basic message of the story. In fact it was echoed by other major papers such as the Wall Street Journal: "Iraqi death toll exceeds 600,000, study estimates," the Los Angeles Times: "study puts wars Iraqi death tally at more than 600,000." and the Financial Times: "conflict in Iraq has killed more than 600,000 people."

All the above headlines are literally correct. They are just misleading, because they are nearly 10 percent too low, and they clearly reflect confusion between the study’s two separate estimates. But the Washington Post inverted this mistake in a front-page teaser referring readers to a story on an inside page: "a new study says 655,000 more Iraqis have died violently [emphasis added] since the invasion than otherwise would have been killed." Ironically, the story itself got the numbers right. But readers who glanced at the front page got the impression that the study’s estimate of violent deaths was over 50,000 higher than the actual figure.

However, the lead sentence in the New York Times article contained a much more significant blooper than appeared in any of the other papers: "A team of American and Iraqi public health researchers has estimated that 600,000 civilians have died in violence across Iraq since the 2003 American invasion... [emphasis added] The error was compounded later in the article, which described last July as "the highest [month] for Iraqi civilian deaths since the American invasion."

This is a glaring error, because it vastly increases the number of the war’s innocent victims, making the conflict seemed even more terrible than it already is. Moreover, the researchers were quite clear about having counted all deaths rather than civilian deaths. For example, they noted that almost 60 percent of deaths occurred among military-age men. In fact it is probably impossible to reliably separate civilian from combatant deaths. Many Iraqis surveyed would be highly unlikely to admit that their deceased family members had been involved in military activity, either because they were fighting with the insurgents or because they were fighting for the Iraqi security forces but sought to hide this information from the insurgents.

Because this error appeared in the New York Times, it was picked up by other papers subscribing to the Times news service, appearing as far away as the San Francisco Chronicle and the Times of India. But foreign media didn’t need the New York Times to confuse the total death toll with the civilian death count. For example, Der Spiegel, the Time magazine of Germany, headlined its story, "new study estimates 600,000 civilian Iraqi death toll." the Sydney, Australia morning Herald led with: "More than 600,000 civilians have died in violence across Iraq since the 2003 US invasion..." And Al Jazeera managed to combine the errors made by both the New York Times and the Washington Post: "More than 650,000 Iraqi civilians have died in violence as a result of the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq, a new study says..."

What makes these errors particularly egregious is that the same authors, using the same methods, published earlier findings from this research project only two years ago, in October 2004. They reached the same conclusion, that the number of Iraqi deaths attributable to the war was far higher than any previous estimate. Finally, their report produced the same sort of controversy that has recurred this month. You might expect, therefore, that some of the world’s leading news organizations would be at an advantage in reporting the facts this time around. But you would be wrong. To make these mistakes the second time around recalls an Oscar Wilde character’s criticism of an orphan: "To lose one parent... may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."