Saturday, February 24, 2007

AP: Media Doing Poor Job on Iraq Reporting

AP reports that while most Americans can properly pin the US death toll in Iraq accurately at approximately 3,000 (hardly a surprise given the daily attention to the figure), they underestimate the Iraqi civilian death toll:

The number of Iraqis killed, however, is much harder to pin down, and that uncertainty is perhaps reflected in Americans' tendency to lowball the Iraqi death toll by tens of thousands.

Iraqi civilian deaths are estimated at more than 54,000 and could be much higher; some unofficial estimates range into the hundreds of thousands. The U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq reports more than 34,000 deaths in 2006 alone.

Among those polled for the AP survey, however, the median estimate of Iraqi deaths was 9,890. The median is the point at which half the estimates were higher and half lower.

Christopher Gelpi, a Duke University political scientist who tracks public opinion on war casualties, said a better understanding of the Iraqi death toll probably wouldn't change already negative public attitudes toward the war much. People in democracies generally don't shy away from inflicting civilian casualties, he said, and they may be even more tolerant of them in situations such as Iraq, where many of the civilian deaths are caused by other Iraqis.

"You have to look at who's doing the killing," said Neal Crawford, a restaurant manager in Suttons Bay, Mich., who guessed that about 10,000 Iraqis had been killed. "If these people are dying because a roadside bomb goes off or if there's an insurgent attack in a marketplace, it's an unfortunate circumstance of war — people die."

Gelpi said that while Americans may not view Iraqi deaths through the same prism as American losses, they may use the Iraqi death toll to gauge progress, or lack thereof, on the U.S. effort to promote a stable, secure democracy in Iraq.

To many, he said, "the fact that so many are being killed is an indication that we're not succeeding."

Whatever their understanding of the respective death tolls, three-quarters of those polled said the numbers of both Americans and Iraqis who have been killed are "unacceptable." Two-thirds said they tend to feel upset when a soldier dies, while the rest say such deaths are unfortunate but part of what war is about.

If the American people are not aware of this, it is at least partly due to the fact that this is a difficult count to do accurately. It is also partly due to the general failure of the news media to report responsibly on the issue. In particular, they have legitimized ridiculous, politically-driven estimates. It would not be a surprise if people failed to focus clearly on 'reporting' that tends to be discredited.

And how often do you read stories that mention the count? Doing a google news search, the most recent story I can find mentioning 'Iraqi civilian deaths' - and not counting variants of the AP story here - is from the Washington Times, a month ago. If the media fail to report the information, people will not know it.

One might also ask whether Americans have a good handle on the number of Iraqis who died under Saddam's rule (over 600,000 according to the Documental Center for Human Rights in Iraq). That's another critical statistic which has received scant attention in the ongoing debate about Iraq.

If you want a closer look at the estimates of the Iraqi civilian death toll, there is a recent CRS report on the topic available here.

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