Mar 21 2005

Counting the Iraqi Dead

On the weekend of the two-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, media outlets took stock of the war‘s death toll. But the national newscasts undercounted the most dramatic loss of life: the deaths of Iraqi civilians.

On the March 18 CBS Evening News, reporter Byron Pitts gave these figures: “Today, U.S. deaths number more than 1,500. There are no exact figures for Iraqi fatalities, but estimates are for every American killed, 11 Iraqis died.” In other words, more than 16,500 Iraqi deaths.

NBC‘s Brian Williams (3/18/05) offered a slightly higher estimate: “So far, 1,513 American military personnel have been killed, 11,344 injured, and many of those are amputees. Estimates of the Iraqi death toll are hard to come by officially, but the civilian toll is thought to range from 17,000 to nearly 20,000 dead and beyond.” ABC‘s World News Tonight did not appear to offer a similar count, but earlier this month (3/3/05) anchor Peter Jennings reported: “There are no official numbers of Iraqi civilian casualties, but Iraqi Body Count, an independent web-site that compiles media reports of the deaths there, says as many as 18,000 Iraqis may have been killed.”

With his “and beyond” comment, NBC‘s Williams seemed to be referring to an estimate of Iraqi civilian casualties that none of the networks saw fit to mention: According to a study published in the respected British medical journal The Lancet (10/29/04), about 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the war. The majority of deaths were due to violence, primarily as a result of U.S.-led military action. One of the researchers on the project said that the estimate is likely a conservative one (New York Times, 10/29/04). It’s certainly a more scientific estimate than the Iraq Body Count figure cited by ABC, which is, as that project’s website notes, a “compilation of civilian deaths that have been reported by recognized sources…. It is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media.”

Recent polling (ABC/Washington Post poll, 3/16/05) indicates that the vast majority of the American public believes that U.S. casualties in Iraq are unacceptable. One can only wonder what Americans think about the level of Iraqi civilian casualties; unfortunately, the media’s count dramatically minimizes that death toll.

ACTION: Contact the network newscasts and ask them to include the Lancet study in their reporting about Iraq’s civilian casualties.


ABC World News Tonight

Phone: 212-456-4040

CBS Evening News

Phone: 212-975-3691

NBC Nightly News

Phone: 212-664-4971

As always, please remember that your comments have more impact if you maintain a polite tone. Please send a copy of your correspondence to

To listen to a CounterSpin interview with civilian casualties researcher Richard Garfield, go to: