Nets, Particularly CBS and Couric, Treat 655,000 Iraqi Death Guestimate as Credible
Martin noted how, at his press conference, President Bush disputed the accuracy of the estimate, but that treated it as merely a political spat. Martin, as well as ABC and NBC, failed to note the imprecision of the number extrapolated from interviews with about 1,800 Iraqi families, or expert doubters of the methodology, some of whom were cited in the Wednesday New York Times story which featured this pull-out statement in the middle of the printed article: "It's not a precise count, and the margin of error is wide." In a larger story, NBC's Jim Miklaszewski gave an air of authority as he relayed: "An independent study released today by Johns Hopkins University claims that more than 650,000 Iraqis have been killed in the war...”
While the New York Times decided to publicize the claim, it didn't consider the report front-page worthy, placing its story, “Iraqi Dead May Total 600,000, Study Says,” on page A-16 (at least in the “Washington Final” edition) and the Times, unlike the Washington Post's article on page A-12, “Study Claims Iraq's 'Excess' Death Toll Has Reached 655,000,” at least contained several caveats. Some excerpts from the October 11 New York Times story by Sabrina Tavernise and Donald G. McNeil Jr.:
A team of American and Iraqi public health researchers has estimated that 600,000 civilians have died in violence across Iraq since the 2003 American invasion, the highest estimate ever for the toll of the war here.
The figure breaks down to about 15,000 violent deaths a month, a number that is quadruple the one for July given by Iraqi government hospitals and the morgue in Baghdad and published last month in a United Nations report in Iraq. That month was the highest for Iraqi civilian deaths since the American invasion.
But it is an estimate and not a precise count, and researchers acknowledged a margin of error that ranged from 426,369 to 793,663 deaths.
It is the second study by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. It uses samples of casualties from Iraqi households to extrapolate an overall figure of 601,027 Iraqis dead from violence between March 2003 and July 2006.
The findings of the previous study, published in The Lancet, a British medical journal, in 2004, had been criticized as high, in part because of its relatively narrow sampling of about 1,000 families, and because it carried a large margin of error.
The new study is more representative, its researchers said, and the sampling is broader: it surveyed 1,849 Iraqi families in 47 different neighborhoods across Iraq. The selection of geographical areas in 18 regions across Iraq was based on population size, not on the level of violence, they said....
Gilbert Burnham, the principle author of the study, said the figures showed an increase of deaths over time that was similar to that of another civilian casualty project, Iraq Body Count, which collates deaths reported in the news media, and even to that of the military. But even Iraq Body Count puts the maximum number of deaths at just short of 49,000.
As far as skepticism about the death count, he said that counts made by journalists and others focused disproportionately on Baghdad, and that death rates were higher elsewhere.
“We found deaths all over the country,” he said. Baghdad was an area of medium violence in the country, he said. The provinces of Diyala and Salahuddin, north of Baghdad, and Anbar to the west, all had higher death rates than the capital.
Statistics experts in the United States who were able to review the study said the methods used by the interviewers looked legitimate.
Robert Blendon, director of the Harvard Program on Public Opinion and Health and Social Policy, said interviewing urban dwellers chosen at random was “the best of what you can expect in a war zone.”
But he said the number of deaths in the families interviewed — 547 in the post-invasion period versus 82 in a similar period before the invasion — was too few to extrapolate up to more than 600,000 deaths across the country.
Donald Berry, chairman of biostatistics at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, was even more troubled by the study, which he said had “a tone of accuracy that’s just inappropriate.”
In a NBC Nightly News story on Pentagon planning for the continued deployment in Iraq of current troop levels through 2010, Jim Miklaszewski inserted:
"An independent study released today by Johns Hopkins University claims that more than 650,000 Iraqis have been killed in the war, more than ten times U.S. military estimates. President Bush dismissed the report as not credible because he says the way in which the numbers were compiled has been discredited."On ABC's World News, anchor Charles Gibson at least described the estimate as “controversial” as he used it to set up a story from Iraq on the impact of the ongoing murders:
"There is a controversial new study about civilian deaths in Iraq that was released today. Researchers from Johns Hopkins claim more than 600,000 Iraqis have died in violence since the U.S. invasion. That number is a good deal higher than other estimates, and President Bush maintained today that the new study is 'just not credible.' But he also said that too many innocents are dying, and in our 'Closer Look' tonight, ABC's Terry McCarthy reports the widespread killing is affecting every aspect of life in Iraq."The MRC's Brad Wilmouth corrected the closed-captioning against the video for the coverage on the October 11 broadcast network evening shows, including the full story on the CBS Evening News:
Anchor Katie Couric: "The President called his news conference four years to the day after Congress voted to authorize sending troops to Iraq. Today the Army Chief of Staff announced that plans have been drawn up to keep current troop levels in Iraq through 2010. And now we're learning that the war has been a lot more deadly than we knew. Here's David Martin."
David Martin: "A new and stunning measure of the havoc the American invasion unleashed in Iraq. A study published in the British journal Lancet estimates 655,000 Iraqis -- 2.5 percent of the entire population -- have died as a consequence of the war."
Dr. Gilbert Burnham, Johns Hopkins University: "It shows that to us that violence is widespread in the country and that this is a major risk to people in Iraq now."
Martin: "To understand how large, consider this: The same percentage of the much larger American population would be 7.5 million dead. President bush rejected the study's conclusions."
George W. Bush, at 11am EDT press conference: "I don't consider it a credible report. Neither does General Casey and neither do Iraqi officials."
Martin: "Casey, the American commander in Iraq, met with the President just before that press conference, and later provided a much lower number."
General George Casey, Multinational Forces in Iraq: "That 650,000 number seems way, way beyond any number that I have seen. I've not seen a number higher than 50,000."
Martin: "But there's one fact Casey does not dispute."
Casey: "The levels of violence over the last few weeks are as high as they have been."
Martin: "Still, Casey seemed to rule out any major changes in strategy. And when Secretary Rumsfeld was asked if he bore responsibility for what's gone wrong in Iraq, he gave this testy response."
Donald Rumsfeld: "Why do we have to keep going through this? Of course I bear responsibility. My Lord, I'm Secretary of Defense. Write it down. Quote it. You can bank it."
Martin concluded, from outside the Pentagon in Virginia: "Military planners here in the Pentagon are, in fact, conducting a review of Iraq's strategy. One senior officer tells CBS News it will stop short of establishing a timetable for withdrawing troops but will recommend setting target dates for turning responsibility over to the Iraqis."