The results from a new poll commissioned by the British media watchdog group MediaLens exposed a startling disconnect between the realities of the Iraq War and public perceptions of it: Namely, what the Iraqi death toll was. When Britons were asked “how many Iraqis, both combatants and civilians, do you think have died as a consequence of the war that began in Iraq in 2003?,” 44 percent of respondents estimated that 5,000 or fewer deaths had occurred.
As Alex Thomson, a reporter for the UK’s Channel 4 (5/31/13), wrote:
That figure is so staggeringly, mind-blowingly at odds with reality as to leave a journalist who worked long and hard to bring home the reality of war speechless.
And polls done in the United States have offered similar conclusions. A Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) poll (3/1/06-3/6/06) that asked how many Iraqi civilians had been killed since the beginning of the war yielded a median estimate of 5,000 deaths.
And when respondents were asked in a different poll (AP/Ipsos, 2/12/07-2/15/07) to give their “best guess” about civilian deaths, 24 percent chose the option of 1,001 to 5,000 deaths.
These answers are, of course, way off the mark. Estimates of the death toll range from about 174,000 (Iraq Body Count, 3/19/13) to over a million (Opinion Business Research, cited in Congressional Research Service, 10/7/10). Even at the times of those U.S. polls, death estimates were far beyond the public’s estimates.
Of course, these findings are disheartening because they reflect a very distorted public perception of the war. But they are indicative of an even bigger problem: corporate media’s inadequate coverage of the human costs of U.S.-led wars.
It seems that much of the mainstream media took Tommy Franks’ infamous quote, “We don’t do body counts” (San Francisco Chronicle, 5/3/03), to heart, because Iraqi victims of warfare were rarely of interest in news reports.
And when they are, they could be a massive undercount. A December 1, 2011 CBS Evening News report told viewers that “more than 50,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the war” (FAIR Action Alert, 12/2/11). This figure was sourced to iCasualties.org, which had one of the lowest estimates of civilian casualties at the time and warned readers that the number was probably a severe undercount.
The “corrected” figure that CBS put forth 11 days later was 115,676 civilians killed, and sourced to Iraq Body Count–still one of the most conservative estimates to be found (FAIR Activism Update, 12/13/11).
But the main issue here is that the press has kept the public in the dark: How can one make a decision about the impact of war if they don’t know, even roughly, how many deaths there were?
As blogger Joe Emersberger put it (Z Blogs, 5/30/13) , the MediaLens-commissioned poll results
are a striking illustration of how a “free press” imposes ignorance on the public in order to promote war. Future wars (or “interventions”) are obviously far more likely when the public within an aggressor state is kept clueless about the human cost.
UPDATE: The World Health Organization’s estimate of 151,000 violent Iraqi deaths from March 2003 to June 2006 should also be noted.