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BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Friday, 28 April 2006, 13:47 GMT 14:47 UK
Iraq Body Count - Media Lens responds
Media Lens website
Media Lens targets 'the distorted vision of the corporate media'
A heated debate is being conducted between Iraq Body Count, a website which claims to keep track of civilian deaths in Iraq, and Media Lens, an unofficial, independent media watchdog.

Media Lens accuses Iraq Body Count of underestimating the number of civilian deaths in Iraq. IBC accuses Media Lens of bullying tactics.

Newsnight invited the two sides to give their versions of the debate. First, in a BBC interview the man behind Iraq Body Count, John Sloboda outlined his case.

The following text is an unedited copy of Media Lens' response.

Iraq Body Count (IBC) is the most commonly cited source for civilian deaths in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion. Politicians and journalists, particularly of the pro-war variety, have leapt on IBC's figures precisely to downplay the tragedy of the civilian death toll.

They are using the lowest number they can find to suggest, for example, that the results of the invasion have been less severe than the consequences of leaving Saddam Hussein in power. But as Stephen Soldz, Director of the Center for Research, Evaluation, and Program Development at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, has noted:

[T]here is simply no reason to believe that even a large fraction of Iraqi civilian combat-related deaths are ever reported in the Western media, much less, have the two independent reports necessary to be recorded in the IBC database. Do these few agencies really have enough Iraqi reporters on retainer to cover the country? Are these reporters really able comprehensively to cover deaths in insurgent-held parts of Iraq? How likely is it that two reporters from distinct media outlets are going to be present at a given site where deaths occur? How many of the thousands of US bombings have been investigated by any reporter, Western or Iraqi? Simply to state these questions is to emphasize the fragmentary nature of the reporting that occurs and thus the limitations of the IBC database."
(Source: Soldz, 'When Promoting Truth Obscures the Truth: More on Iraqi Body Count and Iraqi Deaths,' ZNet, February 5, 2006)

John Sloboda says IBC's job is "reading press reports" which "requires nothing other than care and literacy". But IBC does far more than that.

In his interview, Sloboda, for example, immediately proceeds to pass judgement on the Lancet report - a scientific study conducted by some of the world's leading professional epidemiologists and published in one of the premier science journals after a rigorous peer-review process.

And yet Sloboda's university website describes him as "internationally known for his work on the psychology of music".

A leading epidemiologist describes IBC as "run by amateurs", adding:

It is easy to calculate the sensitivity of their surveillance system. They would take another list or independent sample, and see the fraction of that sample that appeared in their data base. I have asked them to do this over a year ago, they have not.
(Email to Media Lens, March 23, 2006)

We asked IBC why these and other elementary suggestions made by leading experts in the field have been ignored - IBC have refused to respond.

Sloboda argues that "Some critics of the Lancet study have said it's like a drunk throwing a dart at a dartboard." But credible experts in the field have said nothing of the sort.

Michael J. Toole, head of the Center for International Health at the Burnet Institute, an Australian research organisation, has said of the Lancet report:

"That's a classical sample size." Researchers typically conduct surveys in 30 neighbourhoods, so the Iraq study's total of 33 strengthens its conclusions. "I just don't see any evidence of significant exaggeration," Toole added.
(Cited, Lila Guterman, 'Researchers Who Rushed Into Print a Study of Iraqi Civilian Deaths Now Wonder Why It Was Ignored,' The Chronicle Of Higher Education, January 27, 2005)

David R. Meddings, a medical officer with the Department of Injuries and Violence Prevention at the World Health Organization, has said surveys of this kind always have uncertainty because of sampling and the possibility that people gave incorrect information about deaths in their households. However, Meddings added:

"I don't think the [Lancet] authors ignored that or understated. Those cautions I don't believe should be applied any more or any less stringently to a study that looks at a politically sensitive conflict than to a study that looks at a pill for heart disease." (Ibid)

Dr. Bradley Woodruff, a medical epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said, "Les [Roberts, lead author of the Lancet report] has the most valid estimate." (Ibid)

Dr. Toole agreed: "If anything, the deaths may have been higher [than the Lancet study's estimate] because what they are unable to do is survey families where everyone has died." (Ibid)

What would we say of amateur climate researchers who, ignoring this kind of scientific consensus, presumed to pass ill-informed judgement on leading experts in the field of climate science? What would we say if those judgements were then widely reported as credible by the media? Would we perceive a need to challenge those judgements?

We believe IBC should explain to media outlets how its figures are being abused (with journalists writing of 30,000 Iraqi deaths rather than 30,000 +civilian+ Iraqi deaths), why its figures are likely extremely low, why its database is heavily biased in favour of the 'coalition', and why its methodology is flawed by its reliance on patently unreliable Western media sources.

Sloboda claims we have "attacked" IBC, have "a hidden agenda", have used "aggressive and emotionally destructive tactics", have written a "nasty piece" and so on. These are remarkable claims - people can judge for themselves by reading the Media Alerts we have written and archived at our website. (www.medialens.org)

Our view is that we have been asking important questions based on rational arguments backed up by credible sources. Serious commentators like Stephen Soldz, Dahr Jamail, John Pilger and others have also sought answers - their questions have also not been answered.

As for the "nasty or hostile or frightening emails" IBC claim to have received in response to these alerts from our readers, we of course have read most of them. What struck us from the start is how well-informed, cogent and restrained almost all of them have been.

We approached IBC in good faith in January - we sought and expected simple, frank answers to some very straight forward questions.

We were genuinely surprised that they refused to answer these questions and refused to debate the issues.

We have never received an offer of a discussion in private. But if we had, we would have rejected it.

How could such a discussion behind closed doors be justified when open and honest debate on the issue of Iraqi civilian suffering is of such immense importance?

Media Lens would like to make clear they are responding only to the interview with John Sloboda on the Newsnight site.

The site's editors may choose to respond to the full rebuttal of their criticisms on the Iraq Body Count website.

Newsnight has offered to publish this response.

Interview transcript - John Sloboda
27 Apr 06 |  Newsnight Home
Virtual war follows Iraq conflict
27 Apr 06 |  Newsnight Home
Iraq Body Count - John Pilger responds
28 Apr 06 |  Newsnight Home

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