May 1 2008

NPR Disappears Iraqi Dead

Editor's Note

nprIn a segment looking back on five years of the Iraq War, NPR anchor Scott Simon reported (3/15/08), “Estimates on the number of Iraqis killed range from 47,000 to 151,000, depending on the source.”

But what sources are those? The New England Journal of Medicine (1/31/08) had a write-up of a survey, conducted by the Iraqi government for the World Health Organization, that estimated that 151,000 Iraqis had died by violence between the invasion and June 2006—so there’s NPR’s top figure.

The NEJM write-up began: “Estimates of the death toll in Iraq from the time of the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 until June 2006 have ranged from 47,668 (from the Iraq Body Count) to 601,027 (from a national survey).” That would appear to be the source of NPR’s lower figure. But that figure comes from June 2006, before the biggest peak of violence in late 2006/early 2007. The current number from Iraq Body Count—which tabulates only civilian deaths by violence documented in Western news reports—says that there have been at least 82,000 such deaths. Why didn’t NPR use that number?

And if NPR got its lower figure from the NEJM write-up, why did it ignore the higher 600,000 estimate found in the same sentence? That’s the estimate made by the Johns Hopkins University school of public health, reprinted in the journal Lancet (10/11/06). It’s a well-known study done by highly regarded scholars; indeed, when the 151,000 figure came out, NPR’s All Things Considered (1/10/08) turned for comment to Les Roberts, co-author of the Johns Hopkins study, which NPR referred to then as “a survey that continues to be debated in the press and political circles.” Between January and March, though, that much-debated study somehow vanished from NPR’s collective memory.

Other outlets also downplayed the likely number of Iraqi dead; Jim Lehrer of PBS’s NewsHour (3/19/08) reported that the number was “at least 90,000,” without mentioning serious estimates several times higher. Others were more forthright, as with NBC’s Richard Engel (NBC Nightly News, 3/19/08): “The number of civilian casualties is unclear. Estimates range from 85,000 to 600,000.” But few outlets misled their audiences about the highest credible estimates the way NPR did.