There is no more important question about the Iraq War than the question of how many Iraqis have died. It is impossible to truly evaluate the war or discuss where to go from here without knowing the human cost of the war, and that cost has overwhelmingly been borne by Iraqis. That's why it's so disappointing that NPR, looking back on the 5th anniversary of the war, treated this issue with either extreme sloppiness or deliberate dishonesty.
Here's how NPR anchor Scott Simon introduced a segment on March 15 in which senators James Webb and Jon Kyl talked about "what the war has meant and what the future might hold":
But what sources are those? The New England Journal of Medicine (1/31/08) published a survey conducted by the Iraqi government on behalf of the World Health Organization, which estimated that 151,000 Iraqis had been killed by violence between the March 2003 invasion and June 2006. This, presumably, is the source of NPR's 151,000 figure. The write-up in NEJM begins: "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)."
Is the 47,668 figure from Iraq Body Count--a group that tabulates accounts of civilian Iraqi deaths that appear in Western news sources--the source for NPR's 47,000 number? There does not seem to be another major survey of Iraqi deaths that provides that estimate. Yet this is clearly described as a figure from June 2006--before the biggest peak of violence in late 2006-early 2007. Iraq Body Count currently reports that there have been at least 82,249 reported civilian deaths in Iraq; why didn't NPR use this
And if NPR is taking its lower estimate of Iraqi fatalities from the NEJM report, why does it ignore the higher estimate given in that same report of 601,000? That's the estimate made by the Johns Hopkins University school of public health, and published by the Lancet medical journal (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.
It's worth noting that 601,000 figure from Johns Hopkins study and the 151,000 number from WHO both only go up to June 2006, and therefore also leave out the worst of the violence. The most recent survey of Iraqi deaths is the poll conducted by Opinion Research Business, a top British polling firm, in August 2007, which found an estimated 1.2 million deaths by violence among Iraqi households. If NPR really wanted to inform its listeners about the range of credible estimates of Iraqi deaths, it would have included this survey--but instead left them with the impression that the highest plausible estimate was one-eighth as high.
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 almost 14 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 what the highest credible estimates were the way NPR did.
Please ask NPR's ombud to investigate how NPR determined the lowest and highest estimates for Iraqis killed in the Iraq War.
NPR Ombud Alicia Shepard
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