March 29th, 2006
After critiques of their work by MediaLens [see Part 1 and Part 2] and myself [See When Promoting Truth Obscures the Truth: More on Iraqi Body Count and Iraqi Deaths], Iraq Body Count refused to respond to our points. [See Iraq Body Count Refuses to Respond] They said that, instead, they would modify the materials on their web site. They have now done that by adding a Presentation to their site: “A presentation by IBC cofounder John Sloboda at a Working Group Meeting on methodologies used by researchers to estimate numbers of armed conflict deaths (organised by the Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 17 Feb 2006).”
This Presentation is very defensive in tone. Unfortunately, it fails to respond to the central points made by MediaLens or myself. In brief, MediaLens argued that the IBC database had a bias as it relied on Western press sources that were considerably more likely to report deaths due to “insurgents” than those due to US forces. In particular, Media Lens analyzed the IBC database for a six-month period during which it is known that more than 50 airstrikes that had the potential to kill over 30 civilians were authorized by the US military. While the database contained 58 incidents involving over 10 deaths, only one was attributed to US bombing while 54 were attributed to insurgent actions. This discrepancy clearly fails the smell test.
I, in turn argued that there was no reason to believe that the Western press was reporting most, or even a majority of war-related deaths in Iraq. This claim is increasingly implausible given the small numbers of Western reporters remaining in Iraq, the repeated accounts of reporters being unable to move freely, and of the enormous numbers of reporters who have been killed, kidnapped, [and, I might now add, arrested by US forces]. Any claim that the deaths reported in the Western press are a large fraction of total civilian deaths would need to be defended by evidence, a defense that IBC has never provided.
The new Presentation discusses threats to the validity of their work and attacks upon its validity. So how does IBC respond to our criticism? As to the Media Lens points, they completely ignore them. No mention whatsoever of the lack of inclusion of mass deaths from US bombing. No mention of potential bias of the media to report on “insurgent-caused” deaths more than occupier-caused deaths.
When it come to the point about the Western press’s inability to cover deaths in most of the country due to the dangers posed to reporters, IBC does respond in a manner of speaking:
“A third source of bias is the potential lack of ability of news to be collected and to travel. This will be dependent on the level of development of a country, its infrastructure (roads, telephone lines) and its institutions that are official depositories of information (e.g., hospitals, police stations, morgues). The fact that most relatives are able to produce death certificates is a signal of a country peopled with officialdom and bureacracy. Iraq is quite similar in this respect to how Greece or Portugal might have been 20 years ago. It should not be compared to Afghanistan or the DRC.”
I guess we are to conclude from this that Greece and Portugal 20 years ago are also countries in which nearly 100 media workers had been killed and many more kidnapped and/or arrested. Otherwise the comparison is tendentious and beside the point.
The Presentation essentially argues that the multitude of news articles citing IBC’s work are often are ok even if inaccurate as “[N] early all mentions have been in the context of drawing attention to the human cost of the war.” Of course, when President Bush or British officials apparently use IBC figures, it is “in the context of drawing attention to the” relatively small “human cost of the war.” Surely, whether Iraqi civilian deaths are around 30,000 or well over 100,000 makes an enormous difference in how one evaluates the “human costs of the war.” That IBC misses this elementary point is quite disturbing. I would have to put on my psychoanalyst hat to speculate as to why this is the case.
In a letter to Media Lens, IBC co-founder John Sloboda wrote: “[W] e feel that the best way to respond to all of this is to take those criticisms we consider valid into account in our future work, rather than engage in further direct correspondence. You will be able to observe developing events on our website.” The new Presentation on their web site would suggest that they consider none of our criticisms valid and not even worthy of rebuttal. Quite a sad ending to what started as a noble endeavor.