AP, NYT Report Inflated Number of Deaths in Iraq (Updated)

Now that the most recent scandal appears to be losing steam we should expect that the AP and others will return to reporting the news in an objective manner based on facts rather than speculation right? Wrong.

A news story that first circulated in 2004 is being put back into circulation because a researcher at Johns Hopkins has updated a study that was originally panned because of its high margin of error.

The latest news to hit the AP wires inflates the estimated deaths attributed to the war in Iraq by a factor of 13 as it reports in glaring headlines, “Study: 655,000 Iraqis die because of war”. The New York Times version is reporting 600,000 deaths in its headline.

NEW YORK - A controversial new study contends nearly 655,000 Iraqis have died because of the war, suggesting a far higher death toll than other estimates. The timing of the survey's release, just a few weeks before the U.S. congressional elections, led one expert to call it "politics." In the new study, researchers attempt to calculate how many more Iraqis have died since March 2003 than one would expect without the war. Their conclusion, based on interviews of households and not a body count, is that about 600,000 died from violence, mostly gunfire. They also found a small increase in deaths from other causes like heart disease and cancer. - source AP News
The New York Times takes a similar approach in its report.
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 researcher claims that the new estimate is more credible because they expanded the number of families interviewed in the study from 1000 to 1849 and included a larger geographic footprint. At least the AP version considers that the timing of the release may be political.

"They're almost certainly way too high," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. He criticized the way the estimate was derived and noted that the results were released shortly before the Nov. 7 election.

"This is not analysis, this is politics," Cordesman said.

The New York Times does provide some dissenting voices as well but they rebut their own rebuttal with language that is meant to bolster the claims of the study.
Statistics experts in the United States who were able to review the study said the methods used by the interviewers looked legitimate.

The Iraqi Ministry of Heath is estimating that some 50,000 deaths have occurred since 2003.

Update 12:37 by Matthew Sheffield. Over at the Corner, a reader emails Kathryn Lopez some info about the group behind this "study:"

As the AP report points out, other experts agree that these numbers are grossly inflated, and the group has admitted to a political motivation in the timing of its earlier report. And the lead researcher of that report, Les Roberts, said the liberation of Iraq was done “under unsupportable, and probably illegal, pretenses.” Even Human Rights Watch said the earlier report by these same researchers was “certainly prone to inflation due to overcounting”

This group’s October 2004 report claimed 100,000 Iraqis casualties as a result of Iraq’s liberation, and now claim that number is up to 655,000, or more than 550,000 casualties in the last two years alone. But as the authors wrote in an “author’s reply” following concerns that were raised about the methodology of the 2004 report, “The death toll estimated by our study is indeed imprecise.” (Lancet, March 26,2005 - April 1, 2005). And an article in the Guardian following the 2004 report highlighted that the 100,000 was, in the words of one of the study’s authors, only a “rough indicator,” and that the range or their findings was between 8,000 and 194,000.

I'd say the odds are pretty high that they'll similarly discount this current version of the study should they update it in the future. And of course, their political ties aren't likely to be found anywhere in the media coverage of the survey.

Update 15:39 by Terry Trippany: This story has taken off all over the MSM today. The question was actually asked of President Bush in his press conference where the President replied “I don’t consider this a credible report”. Nonetheless the story is actually being peddled across the mainstream media outlets and even in the Wall Street Journal.

Note the escalation in the headlines as some report this as a matter of fact.

  • Wall Street Journal: "Iraqi Death Toll Exceeds 600,000, Study Estimates"
  • Toronto Star: "Iraq death toll jumps"
  • Reuters: Iraq deaths put at 655,000" ( a twofer for Yahoo News as they report both the AP and Reuters Accounts)
  • Guardian UK: "'655,000 Iraqis killed since invasion'" (I guess the quotes in the Guardian headline imply "study says")

The 50,000 number I noted in the original story is based on the original AP story linked above and cited in many sources such as the LA Times and Wikipedia.

Update 16:50 by Matthew Sheffield. This story made me recall the "South Park" episode which ridiculed the media's sensationalistic inflation of death and violence after Hurricane Katrina struck.