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In early 2006 IBC was invited to introduce its work at a Working Group Meeting on methods used by researchers to estimate armed conflict deaths (organised by the Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 17 Feb 2006).

Well-received by experts at the meeting, On Iraq Body Count summarised the project’s key features and innovations.

Potential sources of bias due to use of the media

  • ‘spectacularism’: majority of reports are of 3 or fewer deaths
  • English language sources: Arab sources do not carry many new details
  • ‘lockdown’: functioning infrastructure and recording institutions remain

On IBC slide 11

4.1 Methodological features: Sources of bias due to use of media reports

It is often asked how well the media are able to report on deaths, and whether there may be specific biases.

  1. One possible bias is “spectacularism”. Maybe journalists only report particularly noteworthy deaths (because of the nature of the victim or the size of the death toll). Not so! Nearly 2/3 of our database entries ( 2,077 out of 3,016)* are derived from stories where there were 3 or less victims reported, accounting for 3,231 deaths – only 10% of total deaths. 1,223 of those entries are deaths of one person only. This speaks of a Western media system that still believes that single deaths are noteworthy. How more noteworthy will be incidents where many people die. This is borne out by our observations. When lots of people die there tend to be lots of independent media reports. When one or two people die then, unless they are people of significance, there tends to be only one or two press reports.

  2. A second source of bias is the language of the media sources we use. Do the English language sources on which we rely miss sources that are carried by the Arabic language media? Although this is a presumption made by some of our critics, we have found little evidence of this. Two facts are significant. Firstly, no-one has ever sent us an Arabic media report reporting deaths in Iraq we did not already know about from English language sources. Secondly, there are well-known Arab news media that publish some of their stories in English and are included among IBC's sources. There are also some agencies like the BBC that provide translations of key Arabic sources. We have rarely found deaths among the latter that have not been reported elsewhere.

    It may be that the fact of massive Iraqi deaths is so well known to the Arab media that it is simply not their priority to keep detailed track of individual deaths. It may be more in the West that there is continuing “surprise” that the war still goes on and people are still being killed day by day. This may explain why the West continues to publish these stories, albeit with lamentably little prominence. However IBC is not hampered by this lack of emphasis. Items buried deep within longer reports are precisely what our work is designed to retrieve.

    What about other world languages? We are confident that because the main protagonists in this war are the USA and the UK, that it will be primarily English language media (rather, say, than French or Spanish) that track this information. In a war that involved France but neither Britain or the USA, things might be different.

  3. 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.

[These indicators that the Western media reporting of deaths in Iraq is more complete than is often assumed by those who capture a much smaller fraction of its output than IBC should not be taken as evidence that it is complete. Indeed unless one believes these media to be all-seeing and all-knowing it cannot be. IBC continues to call for genuine efforts to establish the full person-by-person toll of the war by means of an on-the-ground census.]

*As of February 2006.