Media ‘Errors’ And The Lancet

Writing on the BBC’s website last month, World Affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds observed that George Bush was struggling to turn Iraq into a stable country before his term ends in January 2009:

"If the president pulls it off, he can leave the legacy he has been seeking in the Middle East – Iraq as the democratic example which justified the war and the cost."

Welcome to the BBC’s version of objective, unbiased reporting! In reality, Reynolds can have little idea of events behind the scenes in Iraq. There are occasional reports of US machinations fixing the political process, but almost no journalists are willing to brave the Iraqi streets to find out for themselves. An exception is Robert Fisk of the Independent, who describes how serious Western journalism has all but vanished from Iraq:

"One of the American staff admits he has not been outside ‘for months’. An Arab reporter does their street reporting; an American travels around Iraq – but only as an ‘embed’ with US troops. No American journalists from this bureau travel the streets of Baghdad. This is not hotel journalism, as I once described it. This is prison journalism."

Detached from the real world, BBC journalists are happy to take George Bush at his word when he claims to aspire to a "democratic example" in Iraq. When a Media Lens reader challenged his claim that Bush might ultimately be able to justify the slaughter of civilians in Iraq. Reynolds responded:

"I did not mean you to read that as me justifying the war but what Mr Bush would say."

Reynolds was willing to admit and even correct his ‘error’, which is nevertheless very much the norm for BBC performance. Thus, also last month, the BBC’s Middle East analyst Roger Hardy wrote that George Bush is "determined to stick to a tight political timetable which would enable him to start withdrawing US troops from Iraq next year. But will his rush to come up with an ‘exit strategy’ force him to abandon the aspiration to create a modern secular democracy out of the ashes of the Saddam dictatorship?"

If challenged, perhaps Hardy would also respond that he meant to communicate "what Mr Bush would say" was his aspiration; that Bush would claim he intends to withdraw US troops from Iraq, despite the construction of a chain of permanent US bases. On August 29, the US Air Force’s top general said that US warplanes would remain in Iraq well after US ground troops had withdrawn from the country. General John Jumper said:

"We will continue with a rotational presence of some type in that area more or less indefinitely. We have interests in that part of the world and an interest in staying in touch with the militaries over there."

Much journalism consists of power-friendly ‘errors’. In July, the Independent newspaper – considered one of the most rational and honest British newspapers – dismissed estimates published in the science journal, The Lancet, that 100,000 civilians had been killed since the start of the occupation of Iraq. The paper claimed that the sample used to calculate the number of deaths had been "small", adding:

"While never completely discredited, those figures were widely doubted, allowing the authorities in the US and Britain to dismiss them as propaganda."

I challenged the author, senior editorial writer Mary Dejevsky, who replied:

"Personally, I think there was a problem with the extrapolation technique, because – while the sample may have been standard for that sort of thing – it seemed small from a lay perspective for the conclusions being drawn and there seemed too little account taken of the different levels of unrest in different regions."

I asked the Lancet report’s lead author, Les Roberts, one of the world’s most prestigious epidemiologists, to comment on Dejevsky’s criticisms.

The Puzzled Epidemiologist

In his response, Roberts wrote that Dejevsky was wrong even to talk in terms of the report’s "extrapolation technique" – the team had sampled, not extrapolated, data. As for the idea that the sample was "small", Robertscommented:

"This is most puzzling? 142 post-invasion deaths in 988 households is a lot of deaths, and for the setting, a lot of interviews. In 1993, when the US Centers for Disease Control randomly called 613 households in Milwaukee and concluded that 403,000 people had developed Cryptosporidium in the largest outbreak ever recorded in the developed world, no one said that 613 households was not a big enough sample."

It is indeed puzzling. In 2000 Roberts began the first of three surveys in Congo for the International Rescue Committee in which he used methods akin to those of his Iraq study. Roberts’ first survey estimated that 1.7 million people had died in Congo over 22 months of armed conflict. As Roberts says, the reaction could not have been more different:

"Tony Blair and Colin Powell quoted those results time and time again without any question as to the precision or validity."

Indeed, within a month, the UN Security Council passed a resolution that all foreign armies must leave Congo, and later that year, the United Nations called for $140 million in aid to the country, more than doubling its previous annual request. Later, citing the study, the US State Department announced a pledge of an additional $10 million for emergency programmes in Congo.

And yet, remarkably, in October 2004, the Daily Mail reported "growing anger in Washington and London" at "the methods used to compile" Roberts’ Iraq report – essentially the same methods that had been used in Congo.

Most disturbing in Roberts’ reply was his response to Dejevsky’s claims that the uneven levels of violent unrest in Iraq compromised the accuracy of the figures. In fact the study not only accounted for this variability, it erred on the side of caution by excluding data from Fallujah where deaths were unusually high. Fallujah provided the only insight into cities experiencing extreme violence (ie, Ramadi, Tallafar, Fallujah, Najaf); all the others were passed over in the sample by random chance. This means that the actual total of civilian deaths is likely to be higher than 100,000. Roberts toldDejevsky:

"Please understand how extremely conservative we were: we did a survey estimating that ~285,000 people have died due to the first 18 months of invasion and occupation and we reported it as at least ~100,000."

Roberts concluded:

"There are now at least 8 independent estimates of the number or rate of deaths induced by the invasion of Iraq. The source most favored by the war proponents (Iraqbodycount.org) is the lowest. Our estimate is the third from highest. Four of the estimates place the death toll above 100,000."

Politicians and journalists have used the low Iraqbodycount figure to attack the Lancet study. They have also made much of a comment made in the Washington Post by Marc E. Garlasco, a senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch, who said of Roberts’ figures: "These numbers seem to be inflated."

What the media have +not+ reported are comments made since by Garlasco, who now says that he had not read the Lancet paper at the time and calls his quote in the Post "really unfortunate". Garlasco says he told the reporter:

"I haven’t read it. I haven’t seen it. I don’t know anything about it, so I shouldn’t comment on it." But "like any good journalist, he got me to."

Most of the journalists who dismissed the Lancet report did not trouble to establish, or seek, an informed scientific view. Instead, they chose to fall back on government-friendly platitudes and propaganda. Given the gravity of the issue under discussion – our government’s responsibility for the illegal mass killing of tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of civilians – one can hardly imagine a more serious journalistic failure.

Perhaps the last word should go to Roberts himself. Towards the end of his email to Dejevsky, we hear the voice of a highly rational scientist who has experienced, fully, just how irrational the media can be:

"It is odd that the logic of epidemiology embraced by the press every day regarding new drugs or health risks somehow changes when the mechanism of death is their armed forces."

David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org



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