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Debating a BBC journalist about ComRes poll on Iraq War deaths


Jonathan Marcus of the BBC responded to Media Lens about their latest alert ('Limited But Persuasive' Evidence Syria, Sarin, Libya, Lies")
 
He made no mention, in his note to Media Lens, about a poll the alert prominently mentioned which found that the UK public drastically underestimates the death toll from the Iraq war. I then wrote to Marcus. Our exchange is below: 
 
ME:
 
Dear Mr. Marcus.
 
I read your exchange with the Media Lens editors.
 
You obviously read their latest alert but you said nothing about the results of the Comres poll that they cited in the opening paragraphs. Shouldn't the mass media be blamed for the fact that the UK public drastically underestimates the number of Iraqi who died because of the war? If the mass media is not responsible for that then who is?
 
Why do you think the UK media has been so uninterested in the ComRes poll results?
 
Joe Emersberger
 
 
MARCUS:
 
Why is the media responsible in particular? I would imagine that many-  or even most (?) people are busy earning a living in difficult times and far less interested in international affairs than you or I may be. If you genuinely think that the BBC for one hasn't extensively covered civilian casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan etc etc you have not been looking very carefully.
 
I dare say many people are weary of these subjects. Many people have other interests. As I say I have no idea why you feel somebody has to be responsible for this lack of interest. How interested are you in pension reform; schooling; university funding, whatever – all worthy subjects with which I am sure many people occupy their time. The BBC covers the lot – it's all there for our many audiences, whatever their interests.
 
All the best
 
JM

 
ME:
 
Mr. Marcus,
 
Lack of interest, hectic schedules, and so on, make people MORE dependent on what they glean from the media about faraway places – much more so than on many domestic issues about which people can often draw from their own life experience.
 
Please note, most people did not wildly OVER estimate the death toll from the war.
 
Only a miniscule percentage answered "don't know" or declined to make an estimate.
 
There was clearly an impression conveyed to people – from somewhere – that the Iraq War was vastly less bloody than it really was.
 
If you ask people about something they have no knowledge about because of lack of interest, not through misleading information, then you should have seen a way higher percentage of 'don't knows" and a good mix of wild over estimates along with wild under estimates.
 
For example, imagine the likely responses if you ask people how many died as a result of a war among South American countries during the 1800s.
 
If your attitude towards the poll is common among journalists, then I gather the reason they have been so indifferent to the ComRes results, is that they simply reject the idea that they are responsible for public ignorance on the matter.
 
It is convenient attitude for journalists to adopt, but not a defensible one. In fact, it is quite outrageous.
 
 
MARCUS
 
I could not disagree more. Go look at the BBC website. Look at the range of material there. I simply cannot agree that we have not covered these stories in depth and our page "hit' returns indicate large numbers of people have looked at them too.
 
I think we had better leave it there.
JM

 
****
 
As Jonathan Marcus suggested, I had a look at the BBC site.
 
Below I summarize how many articles turn up on the BBC site based on a few different search terms:
 
“Iraq Body Count”………….97
“Les Roberts Lancet”………3
 
“Donald Rumsfeld Iraq”…..1,335
“Paul Wolfowitz Iraq”………..223
 
Recall that Les Roberts was an author of two scientific studies of Iraqi mortality due to the war that were published in the Lancet medical journal. Iraq Body Count tallied civilian deaths from violence alone during the war by relying primarily on news reports.
 
These are crude but revealing search results. Readers are more than ten times as likely to find an article on the BBC citing a few Bush era officials, never mind Bush or Blair themselves, than any person or group who has done work on the human cost of the Iraq war.  Coverage of the human cost represented a very small percentage of the BBC’s Iraq war output. When it was provided at all, coverage focused overwhelmingly on the group providing the lowest figures, Iraq Body Count.    
 
Careful academic studies of the BBC’s output have revealed the same establishment bias captured in my crude search. As John Pilger pointed out
 

 “According to Media Tenor, a mere two per cent of BBC news in the build-up to the invasion permitted anti-war voices to be heard. Compared with the main American networks, only CBS was more pro-war.”
 

It would nice to dismiss Jonathan Marcus’ dim witted evasions as being unrepresentative of the way most professional journalists think. A cursory look at the corporate /state media’s output does not make such a comforting view tenable.

It would also be nice to believe that in the Internet Age the establishment media’s grip on public debate has been greatly loosened. There is certainly great potential in the internet, but research shows that the public continues to rely overwhelmingly on establishment sources when they obtain  news online. The results of the ComRes poll also show how lethal the establishment media’s grip on pubilc debate remains.

Addendum: Tweaking Internet Searches Does not Absolve Establisment Media

Some very desperate attempts have been made to absolve the establishment media, the BBC in particular, of responsibility for the wild underestimate of the Iraq war’s death toll that are made by the vast majority of the UK public. The search results I cited above come directly from the BBC’s search engine. I’ve now embedded links in the numbers above to make that more clear. It has been suggested that using Google to search the BBC’s site paints a drastically different picture. It doesn’t, as I’ll explain below.  I’ll also show results below from a Lexis Nexis search.  

There are some obvious limitations to examining media output this way. As I said above, this is a crude but nevertheless revealing approach. It is no substitute for the kind of careful academic study that I also cited in my original blog post. For example, the results below are not weighted, as ideally they would be, for the number of views they attracted and the prominence of the mention made in each article. They do not weigh if a source is cited with considerable skepticism or with extreme deference.

Using Google to search BBC site

Search term to the left, number of hits to the right.

President Bush Iraq…………………31,000
John McCain Iraq…………………….23,500
Obama Iraq…………………………..20,100
Tony Blair Iraq…………………….16,300

Lancet Iraq………………………..3,760 
Donald Rumsfeld Iraq….3,470 

“Iraq Body Count”………………..1,720

Paul Wolfowitz Iraq……….593
 
Using Lexis Nexis 
All English Language News 
December 1, 2004 - just after first Lancet study published
Until Jan 1, 2009 - just after end of Bush second term
 
President Bush Iraq....3596
Obama Iraq................................1361
McCain Iraq.............999

"Iraq Body Count"......1145 
Rumsfeld Iraq..........604 (out of office by 2006) 
Wolfowitz Iraq..........31 (out of office by 2005) 
Lancet Iraq.............11 
Les Roberts Lancet.......0 

Following are for After Jan 1, 2009 basically the Obama era 

Obama Iraq................1226 
Romney Iraq..................9

"Iraq Body Count"..........966 
Lancet Iraq..................2 
Les Roberts Lancet...........0 


It is clear from these results that Officialdom dominates media coverage of the Iraq war.

The results above capture that, during election years, public debate is not only diluted with endless horse race chatter, but corporate bought candidates are also given major platforms to reinforce orthodoxies. In the case of Iraq, this was strikingly apparent in 2008 as Bush was on his way out. Note the number of articles mentioning McCain and Obama. Iraq was obviously not as hot an election topic in 2012 as shown by few mentions of Iraq in articles that also mentioned Romney compared to candidates Obama and McCain in 2008.

As with any search, the results can be tweaked by modifying search terms slightly. For example, searching "Lancet AND Iraq" with Lexis Nexis turns up 2602 articles since December 1, 2004 – an 8.5 year period. However, similarly searching "Rumsfeld AND Iraq" yields even more articles, 2751, in only three weeks: Dec 1 – 22, 2004. There is simply no honest way to absolve the estblishment media for imposing ignorance on the public. War mongering voices easliy drowned out any rational discussion of the human cost of the war.

  

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