Iraq Body Count
by Robert Shone
David Edwards and David Cromwell (editors of Media Lens)
have published several articles criticising Iraq Body Count
(IBC). Their claims have been widely circulated as part of
a sustained and vigorous campaign against IBC. But Media Lens's
case against IBC is riddled with errors and misrepresentations,
and is further discredited by recent research (Centre
for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, World
Health Organisation / Iraq Family Health Survey,
etc) as outlined below.
Basic errors by Media Lens
• One of the main premises of Media Lens's campaign
against IBC is that "IBC
is not primarily an Iraq Body Count, it is not even an Iraq
Media Body count, it is an Iraq Western Media Body
Lens 14/3/06, my emphasis).
This is entirely false. IBC use non-Western media sources
and non-media sources (eg hospital, morgue and NGO data).
They are able to monitor around 70 major "non-Western"
sources on a daily basis, along with 120 "Western"
Many incidents/deaths in IBC's database are from the major
wire agencies. This reflects the real-world fact that, for
example, Reuters covers by far the highest percentage –
approximately 50% of documented incidents, compared to 35%
Sharqiyah TV (another IBC source), and much lower coverage
by other media sources, "Western" or "non-Western"
Note also that at the level of reporting utilized by IBC,
the dichotomy of "Western" vs "non-Western"
is false, as agencies such as Reuters employ (for example)
Iraqi journalists in covering Iraqi incidents ("We
mainly use local reporters, Arab reporters can go out and
talk to people" –
Reuters’ Baghdad bureau chief).
• In their first
article criticising IBC, Media Lens wrote:
"Whereas the Lancet report estimated around 100,000
civilian deaths in October 2004, IBC reported 17,000 at that
This is incorrect in two ways. First, the Lancet study didn't
estimate "civilian" deaths as Media Lens claim (its
estimate includes "combatants" as well as civilians).
Second, IBC record only violent deaths, so the comparison
should be between 57,600 and 17,687 (57,600 being the Lancet
study's estimate of violent deaths, according
to Lancet co-author Richard Garfield). But even that isn’t
comparing like with like, since IBC do not include combatant
deaths, whereas the Lancet study does.
• Medialens also wrote (in the same
"But anyway, as we have seen, the IBC figure is
selective in its sources, is the lowest estimate of eight
serious studies, and relies on 'professional rigour' in the
Western media that does not exist."
The claim that IBC provides the "lowest estimate"
of "eight serious studies" has been widely circulated
but is completely mistaken. It's based on a collection of
errors and misconceptions (which were exposed in
detail by IBC in 2006), including an error from Les Roberts
(Lancet study co-author) which Roberts has acknowledged to
be an error ("I said the IBC count was 17 deaths
per day over the period 3/1/03 - 2/1/05. That was wrong."
Roberts, email to Gabriele Zamparini, June 2006).
It should also be noted that Media Lens's reference to IBC's
figure as an "estimate" is misleading. IBC does
not provide an "estimate" of a total number of deaths
– it provides a running tally of documented violent
civilian deaths. Media Lens apparently later realized their
mistake, as they no longer refer to IBC's count as an "estimate"
or imply that it's directly comparable to projected totals
from sample surveys. (Indeed they now criticise
journalists for making this mistake, although they haven't,
to date, corrected the mistake in their
• One of Media Lens's main claims is that IBC captures
of the true death toll". One can see immediately
that this isn't supported by their comparison of Lancet 2004
and IBC. (IBC's count of violent civilian deaths is 30% of
Lancet 2004's estimate of total violent deaths. In other words,
IBC is capturing much more than 30% of the "true death
toll" of violent civilian deaths, given Lancet 2004 as
(It's interesting to note that later estimates, eg from IFHS
and CRED, show that
IBC is capturing at least around a third of violent civilian
deaths – contrary to the claims of Media Lens. An earlier
estimate, from ILCS,
shows IBC capturing well over a half of violent civilian deaths.)
Latest errors by Media Lens
Media Lens continue their attack on IBC in a more recent
Body Count: "A Very Misleading Exercise". This
contains several misrepresentations and errors, which I list
1. Media Lens write: "IBC's response to the suggestion
that violence prevents journalists from capturing many deaths
has been, in effect, 'Prove it!'"
This is plainly false. IBC have always stated that "many
if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the
media. That is the sad nature of war." Media Lens are
aware of this (they've quoted
IBC's statement) and cannot claim ignorance.
2. Media Lens: "It is striking that IBC link to
a high-profile media report that so badly misrepresents its
This is misleading. The purpose of IBC's link (titled "Lists
of victims or victim categories to signal the pervasive impact
on every sector of Iraqi society") is to provide an
example of how media have used IBC's data on individual
victims (see lower section of the cited
article, which is clearly titled "Victims' Stories").
Whether Media Lens's assertion that the article "misrepresents"
IBC figures has any merit or not is irrelevant to the point
of the link. IBC doesn't endorse misrepresentations of its
(Given Media Lens's advocacy for the Lancet studies on Iraq
mortality, it's "striking" that they fail to mention
a similar misrepresentation of IBC's figures by the Lancet
study's authors, in an article
for Slate magazine: "Today, IBC estimates
there have been 45,000 to 50,000 violent deaths").
3. Media Lens: "Whereas IBC have responded vigorously,
indeed tirelessly, in responding [sic] to the 2004 and 2006
In fact IBC released only two documents commenting on Lancet
2006 (both mildly critical) and one on Lancet 2004 (uncritical):
(only part of this document deals with Lancet 2006).
That Media Lens is now condemning IBC for "responding" to
the Lancet studies is itself an ironic turn of events. One
of the main complaints of Media Lens's earlier articles targeting
IBC was that IBC were "Refusing
4. Media Lens: "It was [Marc] Herold's Afghan Victim
Memorial Project that inspired John Sloboda to set up IBC.
Herold's 'most conservative estimate' of Afghan civilian deaths
resulting from American/NATO operations is between 5,700 and
6,500. But, he cautions, this is 'probably a vast underestimate'
[...] There is no reason to believe that the application of
the same methodology in Iraq is generating very different
Again this is mistaken and misleading. IBC use the same general
approach as Marc Herold has used for Afghanistan, but they
don't use the same methodology. One of three reasons
listed by Herold in support of his comment in the same article
is that his count includes civilian victims directly killed
by US/NATO bombings and military action, while excluding victims
of the Taliban or other perpetrators. IBC of course includes
killings by any perpetrators in Iraq. There are several other
differences in the methodologies, and there are also reasons
to believe the approach in Iraq is generating somewhat different
results than in Afghanistan. But it is unlikely that Media
Lens have looked into the matter in enough depth to know the
reasons. They have not looked into the matter closely enough
even to know that there are differences in the methodologies,
or even to know that it is not Herold's "Afghan Victim Memorial
Project" (begun in 2004) that inspired IBC, but rather his
Count of Afghan Civilians Killed by U.S. Bombing" –
begun in 2001), two wholly different projects.
In any case, Professor Herold has now written to ZNet stating
that the paragraph written by Medialens has inaccuracies which
need to be corrected, and that the inference drawn from it
regarding IBC is unwarranted.
5. Media Lens: "...what IBC is doing to promote
or reduce the confusion".
This is an unworthy insinuation, suggesting IBC are "promoting"
confusion, but providing no examples of this.
6. Media Lens: "Well, the bureau chief of one of
three Western media agencies providing a third of IBC's data
from Iraq sent this email to a colleague last year (the latter
asked us to preserve the sender's anonymity)".
Media Lens also cited an "anonymous epidemiologist" in their
earlier pieces targeting IBC. It was noteworthy then, as it
is now with this anonymous "bureau chief" and "colleague",
that these unnamed sources weren't able to send their comments
directly to IBC (who would, of course, have treated them in
confidence), or stand behind them publicly. In effect it amounts
to 3rd-hand rumour-mongering.
7. Media Lens: "...a new ORB poll revealing that
1.2 million Iraqis had been murdered since the 2003 invasion".
This is inaccurate. ORB estimated 1.2 million murders.
They did not "reveal" any number of actual murders.
Note also that the ORB poll wasn't peer-reviewed science.
According to ORB's publicity
literature, the person conducting ORB's poll, Munqith
Daghir, began his polling career in 2003, with little in the
way of formal training or field experience. The ORB poll doesn't
have the scientific standing of major studies such as ILCS,
which Media Lens failed to mention.
8. Media Lens: "Why is it important for IBC [...]
to challenge the methodology and conclusions of epidemiological
studies published in the Lancet...".
IBC didn't "challenge" Lancet 2004 (see
IBC's uncritical press release on Lancet 2004), so Media
Lens are incorrect to write "studies" (plural). And other
leading researchers besides IBC have expressed scepticism
over the Lancet 2006 estimates: Jon Pedersen of the UNDP Iraq
study, demographer Beth Osborne Daponte, Fritz Scheuren, a
past president of the American Statistical Association, Professor
Hans Rosling and Dr Johan Von Schreeb at the Karolinska Institute
in Stockholm, Oxford physicists Neil Johnson and Sean Gourley,
Debarati Guha-Sapir, Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre
for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), among
9. Media Lens: "Secondly, while IBC's self-described
task does indeed require only "care and literacy", does not
the task of challenging peer-reviewed science published by
some of the world's leading epidemiologists require very much
more? Does it not, in fact 'require statistical analysis or
In fact, it does not require "statistical analysis"
to observe that the Lancet 2006 figure implies that half a
million death certificates are missing. It does not require
"extrapolations" to observe contradictions in the
accounts of the Lancet 2006 team's description of sampling,
or to note that the sampling methodology as published wouldn't
give you "random" street selection. You don't need "world's
leading epidemiologists" to appreciate how important
random sampling is.
The rhetorical basis of Media Lens's campaign against IBC
is: "how dare these data collectors tirelessly and vigorously
criticise an epidemiological study". It's a weak and misleading
argument, and an appeal to crass credentialism. It's noteworthy
that Media Lens don't apply the same credentialist standards
to the ORB poll which they endorse (and which, as noted above,
is not peer-reviewed science). It's noteworthy also that (to
date) Media Lens have ignored a large body of science (from
leaders in the fields of demography and epidemiology)
which tends to support and confirm the data collected by IBC.
Bear in mind that Media Lens went as far as writing (in a
letter to New Statesman magazine, 16/10/06) that,
"to our knowledge, IBC has not been able to demonstrate
support for its methods from a single professional epidemiologist".
Presumably they weren't paying attention to the epidemiologists/demographers
who have consistently supported IBC's methods. Here are some
recent examples from leading authorities (postdating Medialens's
Beth Osborne Daponte (the renowned demographer who produced
authoritative death figures for the first Gulf War) has recently
While each approach has its drawbacks and advantages,
this author puts the most credence on the work that the
Iraq Body Count has done for a lowerbound estimate of the
mortality impact of the war on civilians. The data base
created by IBC seems exceptional in its transparency and
timeliness. Creating such a data base carefully is an incredibly
time-consuming exercise. The transparency of IBC’s
work allows one to see whether incidents of mortality have
been included. The constant updating of the data base allows
one to have current figures.
Debarati Guha-Sapir and Olivier Degomme, from the Centre
for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, Brussels,
The Burnham [Lancet 2006] estimates of deaths in the
post invasion period are much higher than any other estimate.
Even the lower limit of its 95% CI is higher than the highest
estimate from any other source (Table 1). Further, weaknesses
cited earlier as well as several inconsistencies in their
published work undermine the reliability of their estimates.
While IBC is undoubtedly missing some deaths in Baghdad,
it is unlikely that they would miss an average of over 100
violent deaths a day, given the level of media coverage
in the city. We therefore conclude that their Baghdad mortality
estimate is close to complete, further corroborated by the
ILCS estimates [...]
Our re-estimation of total war-related death toll
for Iraq from the invasion until June 2006 is therefore
Leading epidemiologists from World
Health Organisation / Iraq Family Health Survey
Both sources [IFHS & IBC] indicate that the 2006
study by Burnham et al [Lancet] considerably overestimated
the number of violent deaths. To reach the 925 violent deaths
per day reported by Burnham et al [Lancet] for June 2005
through June 2006, as many as 87% of violent deaths would
have been missed in the IFHS and more than 90% in the Iraq
Body Count. This level of underreporting is highly improbable,
given the internal and external consistency of the data
and the much larger sample size and quality-control measures
taken in the implementation of the IFHS.