Why U.S. Media Dismissed the Lancet Study of 100,000 Iraqi Civilian Dead
by Doug Ireland*
The Chronicle of Higher Education today has a top-drawer article about the researchers from Johns Hopkins and Columbia Universities* who published the study in the British medical journal The Lancet suggesting there were 100,000 Iraqi civilian dead from the war and the occupation. Lila Guterman, the article's author, notes that, "On the eve of a contentious presidential election -- fought in part over U.S. policy on Iraq -- many American newspapers and television news programs ignored the study or buried reports about it far from the top headlines."
The Chronicle article recounts in detail the methdology used for the study's 8000 interviews, in which 30 homes in each of 33 neighborhoods all over Iraq were visited. And other statisticins confirm the validity of the Lancet study's methdology: "Scientists say the size of the survey was adequate for extrapolation to the entire country. 'That's a classical sample size,' says Michael J. Toole, head of the Center for International Health at the Burnet Institute, an Australian research organization. Researchers typically conduct surveys in 30 neighborhoods, so the Iraq study's total of 33 strengthens its conclusions. 'I just don't see any evidence of significant exaggeration,' he says.
The researchers, including Johns Hopkins' Les Roberts--whose previous mortality statistics of conflicts had been used as fact by both the State Department and the U.N.--were particularly shocked by their findings in Fallujah:
"The Fallujah data were chilling: 53 deaths had taken place in the study's 30 households there since the invasion commenced, on March 19, 2003. In the other 32 neighborhoods combined, the researchers had counted 89 deaths. While 21 of the deaths elsewhere were attributable to violence, in Fallujah 52 of the 53 deaths were due to violence.
"The number of deaths in Fallujah was so much higher than in other locations that the researchers excluded the data from their overall estimate as a statistical outlier. Because of that, Mr. Roberts says, chances are good that the actual number of deaths caused by the invasion and occupation is higher than 100,000.
"Mr. Roberts took a few days in Baghdad in late September to compile and analyze the data. He discovered that the risk of death was 2.5 times as high in the 18 months after the invasion as it was in the 15 months before it; the risk was still 1.5 times as high if he ignored the Fallujah data. Because he had found in many other wars that malnutrition and disease were the most frequent causes of civilian deaths, he was 'shocked,] he says, that violence had been the primary cause of death since the invasion."
Guterman's article dissects the U.S.* mass media's attempts to dismiss the study's findings while European newspapers front-paged the story. The results of Guterman's interviews with the "experts" American newspapers relied upon to discredit the Lancet study should cause red faces at some of our national dailies. For example, "The Washington Post, perhaps most damagingly to the study's reputation, quoted Marc E. Garlasco,a senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch, as saying, 'These numbers seem to be inflated.' "Mr. Garlasco says now that he had not read the paper at the time and calls his quote in the Post 'really unfortunate.'He 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, Mr. Garlasco continues, 'like any good journalist, he got me to.'
"Mr. Garlasco says he misunderstood the reporter's description of the paper's results. He did not understand that the paper's estimate includes deaths caused not only directly by violence but also by its offshoots: chaos leading to lack of sanitation and medical care."
David R. Meddings, a medical officer with the Department of Injuries and Violence Prevention at the World Health Organization, points out why the study was so important: "If you can put accurate information out [on civilian casualties], it shifts the burden of proof onto militaries to substantiate why what they're doing is worth this humanitarian cost."
The Chronicle article is another case study of the institutional corruption of U.S. media, which is so complacent about challenging the reputation of this country's military and has been so lacking in coverage of Iraqi civilian casualties. And, of course, the caution of the media (with the exception of Rather and his CBS crew) during our presidential election made the timing of the Lancet's publication work against the story making headlines here. There's a lot more must-read material in this smart, first-rate article--you can read it in its entirety by clicking here (no longer available).