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Posted by ALP on February 28 2008, 15:16 » Uploaded 28/02/08 15:26  

More evidence that "churnalism" (media churning of myths and dubious factoids, rather than checking the facts) occurs not just in the mainstream media. Adbusters have published an article which regurgitates many of the discredited myths (originating in sloppy pieces from the likes of Medialens), over the Iraq death count issue. Here's my email:

Dear Adbusters,

Sean Condon's article, 'A Question of Numbers', is so full of basic errors and omissions, that I think it should be rewritten. Here are some of the errors:

1. The Lancet 2006 study did not "find roughly 650,000 civilian casualties" (as Condon claims). It estimated roughly 650,000 excess deaths, including combatants. The survey made no distinction between civilians and combatants.

2. Condon writes that Iraq Body Count (IBC) "only count a civilian death if it has been reported in at least two English media sources". This is incorrect and misleading. IBC monitor around 70 non-western media sources daily, along with 120 western sources. To take a given day (2/10/06), IBC compiled material from agencies based in 7 countries - USA, UK, France, Kuwait, Iraq, Germany, China. IBC utilises reports written or published in the English language, although not always originating in it - eg material from the foreign-language monitoring units of Middle East media, or the major Iraqi media. Note also that English-language wire services such as Reuters and AP (whose reports are compiled by IBC) use reporters in Iraq who are predominantly Iraqi and whose reports are frequently what local Iraqi media rely on for daily news.

3. Condon writes that: "the number of civilian casualties is estimated to be anywhere between 80,000 and 1.2 million". Again, this is misleading. The 80,000 figure (approximately IBC's current count) is not an "estimate". IBC have always stated that they necessarily provide an undercount, since "many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media". The 1.2 million figure is an estimate (by ORB) of the total number of "Iraqi citizens [who] have been murdered". In other words, this is not comparing like with like. Note also that ORB have revised their estimate downwards to "the order of 1,033,000" - Condon's "1.2 million" figure is out of date.

4. Condon claims that "the Lancet study uses scientific methods that have been proven accurate everywhere from Darfur to Kosovo". In fact these methods (which were not designed for violent conflicts) are not well-validated in war zones. The co-author of the Lancet 2006 study, Gilbert Burnham, stated in an email to me that because so few surveys of this type have been conducted in conflict zones, and particularly in urban, middle development level countries such as Iraq, there is no standard for them. The notion that these methods have a "proven" record of "accuracy" in war zones is a myth. To say, as Condon does, that they've been "proven accurate everywhere from Darfur to Kosovo" is simply incorrect.

5. Condon writes that journalists who quote IBC are "only referencing their own reports, while creating the illusion of a separate, reliable source". This is misleading and demonstrates a lack of understanding of IBC's work (for one thing, their data is drawn not just from media reports, but also from hospital, morgue, NGO and other sources, wherever it can be integrated). Moreover, IBC's data has received confirmation from two studies which used methods similar to the Lancet study, but on a much bigger scale and with better quality control - more on these studies below.

6. Omissions. Given that Condon's article is from the March-April 2008 Adbusters (although I can't tell when it was written) the absence of any reference to the recent World Health Organisation study is disappointing. This study used methods that were similar to Lancet 2006, but on a larger scale (it surveyed 9345 households in 1086 clusters, compared to the Lancet 2006's 1849 households in 47 clusters). The WHO study estimated 151,000 violent deaths compared to Lancet 2006's 600,000 violent deaths (over roughly the same period). The WHO study's findings are sharply at odds with Lancet 2006 over estimated violent deaths, and much closer to Iraq Body Count (which records only civilian deaths; WHO, like Lancet, includes combatants).

7. Another omission is the United Nations Iraq Living Conditions Survey (ILCS), 2004 - another cluster-sampling study which dwarfs the two Lancet studies (over 21,000 households surveyed). This found a much lower number of violent deaths (in an overlapping period – it estimated nearly 24,000 civilian deaths in the first 13 months of the conflict) than is implied by Lancet 2004 study.

8. Condon refers to "the respected UK-based polling firm, Opinion Research Business (ORB)" as providing the 1.2 million estimate. ORB effectively subcontracted the Iraq polling work to the Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies. The person conducting the research, Munqeth Daghir, is reportedly a self-trained pollster who began his polling activities in 2003. Describing his early attempts at polling, Daghir says, "I knew that Baghdad is distributed into nine different areas, and how many citizens lived in each one. But to tell the truth, I didn't know anything about the real random systematic sample. We did it randomly by going to any house we wanted to go to. So it wasn't a perfect sample."

9. ORB originally stated that their survey was based on "a nationally representative sample." Later, they admitted that the survey was "undertaken in primarily urban locations". Given that about a third of Iraqis live in rural areas, this is a significant omission, which ORB failed to disclose when the results were first published. ORB conducted a follow-up survey to correct this omission (after receiving criticism on this point). As a result their estimated total was revised downwards from the figure Condon quoted.

COMMENTS Post comment


Comment 01 – Julie February 29 2008, 13:29

There's a good point made by someone in a comment on the Abusters article, which is since when is 80,000 a "small" number of dead civilians? Why are people not completely shocked by that, why do they need bigger and bigger numbers?

Comment 02 – ALP March 01 2008, 15:25

Yes, away from a small group of shrill, obsessive Lancet defenders (at Medialens and Deltoid), I think you see this sensible view from most people who aren't complete sadists. In other words, most people (whether or not they supported the war) would find the figure of 80,000+ dead-by-violence civilians truly appalling - an argument against war, obviously.

It's only in the narrow little world of those who believe in Lancet-as-Holy-Writ that the 80,000 figure takes on a different meaning, namely of blasphemy; of a number that's too low.

As if the fact that "only" 80,000 civilians were violently killed is some advert for war that could be used as "propaganda" by the war-mongers. That insane position is taken by Medialens and many of their followers, who appear to have argued themselves into a corner.


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