USA Today Edits the Count of the Dead in Iraq

USA Today (1/12/11) continues the tradition of dishonest reporting on the number of civilian casualties in Iraq. In a front-page article, reporter Tom Vanden Brook writes:

Estimates vary among organizations that have tried to count civilian dead, according to a review last year by the Congressional Research Service. The Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights reported that 85,694 Iraqi civilians died from insurgent attacks from 2004 through 2008. The Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, estimated that more than 111,000 Iraqis died from war-related incidents from 2003 through 2010.

So estimates vary between about 85,000 and 111,000, right? Wrong. As the Congressional Research Service report (10/7/10) that USA Today cites makes clear, the highest estimate from a credible source is over 1 million–that’s the number from ORB (9/07), a respected British polling firm. That number is in line with the Johns Hopkins researchers (Lancet, 10/11/06) whose epidemiological survey came up with a likely total of 600,000 violent deaths for an earlier phase of the war.

Different groups, using different approaches to the complicated task of estimating loss of life in a war zone, have come up with a broad range of numbers for the death toll in Iraq. USA Today, however, seems to be using a simple guideline for whether to include such numbers in its reporting: Do they make the U.S. look good?

That’s the only reportorial approach that could justify the story’s inclusion of this bit of self-serving, evidence-free handwaving:

Despite the imprecision, [Pentagon spokesperson Col. Dave] Lapan said the military believes insurgents killed far more civilians than U.S. and allied forces have in Iraq. However, the military is unable to quantify the claim, he said.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.