We learn some ugly truths when we compare the media response to Les Roberts’ report on Iraq with the response to his earlier work in Congo.

In our analysis we found that in both the US and the British press, news reports initially presented the estimates of 100,000 deaths in Iraq and 1.7 million deaths in Congo without critical comment. The difference lies in the days, weeks and months that followed. Whereas the Congo figures and methodology were accepted without challenge, the Iraq figures and methodology were subjected to steady, withering criticism by both politicians and journalists (with rare defences in comment pieces by, for example, Seumas Milne and Terry Jones in the Guardian).

Interestingly, we have found that the right-wing British press appears to have been marginally more rational and honest in its news reporting on the Iraq figures than the so-called liberal press. For example, the Times wrote of the Lancet report in November 2004:

“While doubts have been cast over some of the report’s findings… If anything, researchers appear to have erred on the side of caution, opting to omit all data from Fallujah, where the mortality rates were significantly higher.” (Sam Lister, ‘Body-count report makes a mockery of Labour’s “passion” for statistical analysis,’ The Times, November 23, 2004)

The Financial Times even managed to make the obvious point we are making in this alert:

“This survey technique has been criticised as flawed, but the sampling method has been used by the same team in Darfur in Sudan and in the eastern Congo and produced credible results.

“An official at the World Health Organisation said the Iraq study ‘is very much in the league that the other studies are in … You can’t rubbish (the team) by saying they are incompetent‘”. (Stephen Fidler, ‘Lies, damned lies and statistics,’ Financial Times, November 19, 2004)

By comparison, reports in the ‘liberal’ press have tended to be more sceptical of the Lancet estimates and more respectful of government criticism. For example, foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn wrote in the Independent on Sunday:

“The Iraqi Body Count figure is probably much too low, because US military tactics ensure high civilian losses. American firepower, designed to combat the Soviet army, cannot be used in built-up areas without killing or injuring many civilians. Nevertheless a study published in The Lancet, estimating that 100,000 civilians had died in Iraq, appears to be too high.” (Cockburn, ‘Terrified US soldiers are still killing civilians with impunity,’ The Independent on Sunday, April 24, 2005)

Consider the logic – one estimate is “probably much too low” because the American army uses powerful weapons designed for Cold War combat. That is considered a serious response to one serious study. Another study “appears to be too high”, presumably because American weapons are not +that+ powerful. One can only feel for epidemiologists like Les Roberts who have to read these comments on their work.

“Stunning” But “Sound” – Media Response To The Congo Methodology And Numbers

On June 9, 2000, the Washington Post and New York Times both reported the figure of 1.7 million dead in Congo without challenge. The Guardian did the same on June 10. The New York Times’s ‘Quotation Of The Day’ on June 9 read:

“‘Men with guns come and wreak havoc on a very regular basis. Those men cause more death by making people flee their homes than actually by shooting or slitting throats.’ Les Roberts, supervisor of a survey that attributes 1.7 million deaths in eastern Congo to two years of war.”

The Guardian reported: “a new survey by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) sheds light on what is happening across this vast country. The New York-based IRC estimates that 1.7m people have died from the war in the northern and eastern provinces alone in the past two years.” (Hrvoje Hranjski and Victoria Brittain, ‘2,600 a day dying in Congolese war,’ The Guardian, June 10, 2000)

On June 24, a Washington Post editorial observed:

“The Roberts estimate is, of course, a rough one. Nevertheless, the report deserves to be taken seriously as the first comprehensive attempt to establish the dimensions of the crisis.” (Leader, ‘Catastrophe in Congo,’ Washington Post, June 24, 2000)

In April 2001, Karl Vick of the Washington Post described updated IRC figures for Congo (approaching three million dead) as “stunning“ such that they “beggar belief even among some war zone demographers”. Vick cited the reaction of Jeff Drumtra, a researcher for the US Committee for Refugees:

“One doesn’t know what to do with that kind of estimate except reach down and pull your jaw up off the floor.” (Vick, ‘Death Toll in Congo War May Approach 3 Million,’ Washington Post, April 30, 2001)

Vick continued: “Independent experts who have reviewed both IRC reports say the surveys appear to be sound.” He cited a Western medical epidemiologist with long experience in humanitarian emergencies:

“’My personal belief is these numbers are the absolute best that could be done in the circumstances, and there’s absolutely no reason to believe any bias of any kind has found its way in.’”

On May 10, 2001, the Washington Times reported IRC estimates as fact and sympathetically interviewed Les Roberts, asking him questions such as: “How does this disaster compare in scope and scale to other African crises?” and “What can be done?”. (Didi Schanche, ‘War deaths on “horrifying” rise, IRC says,’ Washington Times, May 10, 2001)

The New York Times wrote in April 2002:

“To policy makers, humanitarian workers or journalists working in sub-Saharan Africa, one of the hardest things to find is a reliable number… Because of the scarcity of numbers here, those that do exist tend to be more politicized and less scrutinized than they are elsewhere.” (Norimitsu Onishi, ‘African Numbers, Problems and Number Problems,’ New York Times, April 18, 2002)

Of Roberts’ Congo figures, however, the New York Times concluded: “The agency’s figures have been well accepted.”

The Guardian reported updated IRC figures in April 2003:

“A total of 4.7 million people have died as a direct result of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s civil war in the past four and a half years, according to a report released today by the International Rescue Committee, a leading aid agency.”

The article added:

“With a margin for error of 1.6m – a standard proportion is applied to areas too dangerous for researchers to reach – IRC admits its estimate is approximate. Yet few aid workers in eastern Congo doubt that a total death toll of 4.7m is possible.

“‘With an almost complete lack of medical care, as well as food insecurity and violence over a vast area, this number does not seem exaggerated,’ said Noel Tsekouras, the UN humanitarian coordinator for eastern Congo.” (James Astill, ‘Away from the worlds gaze 4.7m die in Congo,’ The Guardian, April 8, 2003)

We found literally dozens of examples of this kind. Even though the estimates of death in Congo clearly astonished even experienced observers of the conflict, the media reported the figures with essentially zero mention of any concerns about the validity of either the numbers or the methodology.

“Egregious Politicization” – Media Response To The Iraq Methodology And Numbers

Consider by contrast a June 23, 2005 editorial in the Washington Times in response to the Lancet report. The paper lamented an instance of “egregious politicization of what is supposed to be an objective and scientific journal”. The editors explained:

“We’re referring to the Lancet’s role in trying to influence the U.S. presidential election with a cynical ‘study’ of deaths in the Iraq war in October. The study, led by Les Roberts of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, purported to show that nearly 100,000 deaths had resulted from the Iraq war. But as it turned out, Mr. Roberts used less-than-ideal methods and then overstated his results, possibly by a factor of two or three.”

Echoing the remarkable comments made by the Independent’s Mary Dejevsky about the lack of “real” figures, the editorial continued:

“The method for this study – looking at population figures and surveying a few thousand Iraqis to ask how many deaths they’d heard of – abstracted the question and avoided the hard work of actually documenting the deaths.” (Leader, ‘The Lancet’s Politics,’ Washington Times, June 23, 2005)

Following the standard misrepresentation, the Washington Times added:

“In any event, the fine print showed the study didn’t really even conclude 100,000 deaths occured. It actually concluded that casualties were somewhere between 8,000 and 194,000. At the time, the British research group Iraq Body Count had placed the number of confirmed deaths reported in the media at around 15,000 – probably a low estimate, but not by a factor of six.”

The conclusion was calculated to be as damning as possible:

“Does the publication of one politically motivated study mean the entire product of a journal is suspect? Of course not. But it rightly raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic and showed that even the most esteemed and avowedly apolitical institutions can be suspectible to hijacking.”

In December 2004, the Washington Times wrote:

“Or how about the constantly cited figure of 100,000 Iraqis killed by Americans since the war began, a statistic that is thrown about with total and irresponsible abandon by opponents of the war. That number, which should be disputed at every turn by those who care about the truth of what is going on in Iraq was derived from a controversial study by the British journal of medicine the Lancet. It is five to six times higher than the highest estimates from other sources of all Iraqi deaths, be they military or civilian. The Lancet study relied on reporting of deaths self-reported by 998 families from clusters of 33 households throughout Iraq, a very limited sample from which to generalize.

“As the Financial Times reported on Nov. 19, even the Lancet study’s authors are now having second thoughts.” (Helle Dale, ‘Biased coverage in Iraq,’ Washington Times, December 1, 2004)

The New York Times quoted Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, who said the Iraq Body Count figures were within the realm of reason: “We’ve used their data before. It’s probably not too far off, and it’s certainly a more serious work than the Lancet report.” (Hassan M. Fattah, ‘Civilian Toll in Iraq Is Placed at Nearly 25,000,’ New York Times, July 20, 2005)

In Britain, the pro-war Observer noted that the Lancet study “was published soon before the US election, bringing accusations that the respected journal had become politicised. Journalist Michael Fumenton [sic] of the US-based TCS [Tech Central Station] website called it ‘Al-Jazeera on the Thames’.”

Reporter Jamie Doward added:

“The report’s authors admit it drew heavily on the rebel stronghold of Falluja, which has been plagued by fierce fighting. Strip out Falluja, as the study itself acknowledged, and the mortality rate is reduced dramatically.” (Doward, ‘Death in the desert: Why I was right on the 100,000 dead,’ The Observer, November 7, 2004)

This foolish rendering of the report was corrected in a 97-word paragraph in the paper one week later (‘For the record,’ November 14, 2004), which noted that Falljuah had in fact of course been stripped out. But the correction was low-profile and the damage had been done.

In the Guardian, professor of mathematics John Allen Paulos wrote:

“Given the conditions in Iraq, the sample clusters were not only small, but sometimes not random either… So what’s the real number? My personal assessment, and it’s only that, is that the number is somewhat more than the IBC’s confirmed total, but considerably less than the Lancet figure of 100,000.” (John Allen Paulos, ‘The vital statistics of war,’ The Guardian, December 16, 2004)

We were unable to find a single example anywhere in the British or US press of a commentator rejecting the Congo figures and offering their own “personal assessment” in this way.

In an article entitled, ‘We should be counting the dead in Iraq, but let’s not get the figures out of proportion like this,’ the Independent on Sunday’s chief political commentator and Blair biographer, John Rentoul, demonstrated standard media ignorance in discussing the Lancet‘s 100,000 figure:

“However, this number is only the central point of a range that extends from 8,000 to 194,000. This huge disparity was mocked ignorantly by one American commentator as ‘not an estimate, it’s a dartboard‘. It was also defended, equally ignorantly, by the editor of The Lancet, who said: ‘It’s highly probable the figure is 98,000. Anything more or less is much less probable.’ Both wrong. What the figures say is that there is a 95 per cent chance that the true figure lies between 8,000 and 194,000… It is statistically respectable, which is why The Lancet article passed its peer reviews, but it produces estimates hedged about with great uncertainty.

“And there are good reasons for thinking that the true figure is towards the lower end of The Lancet’s range.” (Rentoul, ‘We should be counting the dead in Iraq, but let’s not get the figures out of proportion like this,’ December 10, 2004)

And there are good reasons for questioning Rentoul’s objectivity. Writing in the wake of the July 7 London bombings, Rentoul wrote:

“The worst succour that the anti-war left in Britain can give to the terrorists, however, is to entertain the idea that there is a moral equivalence between the deliberate killing of civilians and the casualties of military action in Iraq.”

He added that, “even Iraq Body Count, an anti-war campaign, puts the total attributable to coalition forces at under 10,000, rather than the figure with an extra zero that is the common misconception of anti-war propaganda”. (Rentoul, ‘Islam, blood and grievance,’ The Independent, July 24, 2005)

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School, Columbia University, Baghdad’s Al-Mustansiriya University, and The Lancet, being, we must presume, anti-war propagandists.

Writing in the New Statesman, Peter Wilby notes that Rentoul “has written a reverential biography of Tony Blair, and even the former Guardian (now Times) columnist David Aaronovitch must concede to him the palm for unstinting support of new Labour”. (Wilby, ‘To judge from my e-mails,’ New Statesman, September 5, 2005)

No small achievement.

Conclusion – A Striking Example

Regardless of the rationality or facts of the matter at hand, when the US and British governments rejected the Lancet’s 100,000 figure as wildly exaggerated and flawed, the US and British media simply fell into line. But flawed methodology cannot be the determining factor, because the same media entities expressed zero dissent in response to the same lead researchers using the same methods in Congo.

The difference in media performance is clearly explained by the stance of power – the establishment on which the media system depends and of which it is a part. Indeed it is hard to imagine a more striking example of how the mass media act as a propaganda system for these interests.

Given the extraordinary gravity of the issue – our governments’ responsibility for the illegal killing of tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of innocent civilians – it is also hard to imagine a more appalling journalistic failure and betrayal.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. When writing emails to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Mary Dejevsky
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Write to Terry Kirby
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Write to John Rentoul
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Write to Jamie Doward
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Write to Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
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Write to Roger Alton, Observer editor
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Write to Simon Kelner, Independent editor
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Write to Tristan Davies, Independent on Sunday editor
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