NYT Exploits Own Iraq Death Toll Denial to Trash Venezuela

It's bad enough that the editors of the New York Times have
refused so far to tell the truth about what we know about the
magnitude of the death toll in Iraq as a result of the US invasion and
occupation of the country since 2003, according to the standards that
are used to describe human tragedies for which the U.S. government
does not bear primary responsibility. If the New York Times
used the same standards of evidence to describe human tragedies
regardless of the degree of responsibility of the U.S. government, it
would report that "hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died" as a
result of the US war, a fact that we know with the level of confidence
that we know similar facts that the New York Times publishes
as a matter of routine (such as a recent report that "hundreds of
thousands of Iraqis died" - in the Iraq-Iran war.) The New York
is reluctant to publish this fact about the U.S. war,
perhaps, because this fact is awkward to acknowledge for those in
Washington who support the status quo policy of permanent war.

But now the New York Times has exacerbated the harm of its
denial about the Iraqi death toll, by using its own failure to
accurately report the death toll in Iraq as a benchmark for comparison
to other human tragedies: in particular, to claim that murder in
Venezuela claimed more lives in 2009 than did violence in Iraq. The
New York Times editors are like the boy who killed his
parents and demanded mercy on the grounds he was an orphan.

In a front page article this week headlined "Venezuela,
More Deadly Than Iraq, Wonders Why
," NYT reporter Simon
Romero claims:

Some here [in Caracas] joke that they might be safer if
they lived in Baghdad. The numbers bear them out.

In Iraq, a country with about the same population as Venezuela, there
were 4,644 civilian deaths from violence in 2009, according to Iraq
Body Count; in Venezuela that year, the number of murders climbed
above 16,000.

Note that the headline and the first two paragraphs of this piece
depend crucially on the assumption that the partial tally of Iraqi
deaths constructed by the NGO Iraq Body Count by monitoring press
reports gives an accurate picture of the magnitude of the Iraqi death
toll. If the Iraq Body Count partial tally is not an accurate picture
of the magnitude of the Iraqi death toll, if it is too small by
several orders of magnitude, then the comparison of the lede and the
headline in the New York Times article is baseless.

But we know, by the standards ordinarily used to establish such
things, that the Iraq Body Count partial tally is not an accurate
measure of the magnitude of the Iraqi death toll.

In January 2008 the World Health Organization reported
the results of the "Iraq Family Health Survey," published in the
New England Journal of Medicine. The WHO study estimated
151,000 deaths due to violence, with a 95% confidence interval of
104,000 to 223,000, from March 2003 through June 2006.

The New York Timesreported
at the time

The World Health Organization on Wednesday waded into the
controversial subject of Iraqi civilian deaths, publishing a study
that estimated that the number of deaths from the start of the war
through June 2006 was at least twice as high as the oft-cited Iraq
Body Count.


The Iraq Body Count, a nongovernmental group based in
Britain that bases its numbers on news media accounts, put the number
of civilians dead at 47,668 during the same period of time as the
World Health Organization study, the W.H.O. report said. President
Bush in the past used a number that was similar to one put forward at
the time by the Iraq Body Count.

About this, the WHO said
at the time:

"Our survey estimate is three times higher than the death
toll detected through careful screening of media reports by the Iraq
Body Count project and about four times lower than a smaller-scale
household survey conducted earlier in 2006," added Naeema Al Gasseer,
the WHO Representative to Iraq.

The latter reference is to the Johns Hopkins/Lancet study, which
estimated a death toll due to violence four times higher, as the WHO
official stated. If the Lancet numbers estimate were correct,
then the Iraq Body Count number is 12 times too small.

But here I emphasize the WHO study because it makes a stronger
argument that using the Iraq Body Count partial tally as if it were a
picture of the magnitude of the overall death toll is very wrong. The
Lancet numbers have been disputed as too high. The WHO
numbers have been disputed as too low, but as far as I am aware, no
serious critic claims that they are too high.

What does the WHO study tell us about whether the Iraq Body Count
tally captures the magnitude of the Iraqi death toll?

It tells us, by the standards ordinarily used in statistics, that it does not.

A 95% confidence interval means that you assess a 95% probability that
that interval covers the true value you are trying to estimate. If the
WHO study was correct, then the probability that the true death toll
as of June 2006 was 47,668, or any other number less than 100,000, was
extremely small, less than 2.5%.

In response to my request for a correction or clarification, a New
York Times
editor wrote that Romero did not

declare the Iraq Body Count correct; he simply used an
official figure, even if one subject to debate, to make a comparison
with the violence in Venezuela.

But this explanation is inaccurate and does not make sense.

As the New York Times correctly reported in January 2008, the
Iraq Body Count partial tally of Iraqi deaths is not an "official
figure." It is complied by "a nongovernmental group based in Britain
that bases its numbers on news media accounts." You could say it's
"official" because George W. Bush implicitly endorsed it, but I don't
think that's a definition of "official" that the New York
editors would want to try to defend.

And if you want to say that X is bigger than Y, you have to know how
big Y is; at least, you must have a handle on how big Y might be. If
you want to claim that X is bigger than Y, it makes a big difference
if your "subject to debate" way of measuring Y produces a number that
is too small by orders of magnitude; certainly if, in fact, the error
might be great enough that in truth, Y is bigger than X. According to
the numbers given in Romero's New York Times piece, if the
Iraq Body Count is only too small as an estimate by a factor of 3,
then Romero's claim might still be true; but if Iraq Body Count is too
small by a factor of 4, then Romero's claim is false. If Iraq Body
Count is too small by a factor of 10 or more, as the Lancet
study suggested, then Romero's claim is way off. Thus, to judge the
leading claim of Romero's article and the NYT headline that
accompanied it on the front page, you have make a judgment about the
claims about the scale of Iraqi deaths.

Isn't that obvious?

It's true, of course, that the degree to which Iraq Body Count is a
poor measure of the magnitude of Iraqi deaths might not be constant
over time. You might reasonably expect that it captured a smaller
share of deaths at the times of greatest violence, and therefore that
it captured a greater share of deaths in 2009, when violence, by all
accounts, was much lower than at the peak of the civil war. (Of
course, noting that violence was much lower in Iraq in 2009 suggests
Romero's comparison was misleading in another way: when people think
of "violent Iraq," they are more likely thinking of Iraq at the height
of the civil war than in 2009.) But there is no evidence that the
Times made any effort to judge these issues. They just acted
as if the Iraq Body Count partial tally was a picture of the magnitude
of deaths, which it manifestly is not - unless you're George Bush.

It is reasonable to expect that the overwhelming majority of people
who saw and will see the front-page story in the New York
won't be aware of any of this. They will see the headline
"More Killings in Venezuela Than in Iraq," complete with a huge color
photo of a funeral with grieving relatives of a murder victim. This
will go all over the world, and many people will think, "Isn't that
amazing! More killings in Venezuela than Iraq! That Hugo Chavez has
really made a mess out of the country."

Arguably, that is the point of such an article, to produce this result.

The publication of this article coincides with an all-out effort to
make violence and insecurity in Venezuela the main opposition campaign
theme in the September congressional elections in Venezuela.

Since most of the Venezuelan media, as measured by audience, is
controlled by the opposition in Venezuela, that has been the main
theme in the Venezuelan media lately. CNN en Espanol
contributed their part by showing - four times - a documentary on
violence in Venezuela, blaming the government. Now the Times
has provided international validation for this campaign. No meetings
to establish collaboration are necessary: a New York Times
reporter in Caracas seeking to attack the Venezuelan government can
easily take his cues from the opposition media.

There has indeed been a large increase in the murder rate in Venezuela
over the last decade. There is something to be explained, since
poverty, a standard explanation for increased criminal violence, has
been sharply reduced in Venezuela during the time.

But Romero offers almost nothing in the way of explanation, and most
of what he does offer is wrong or makes no sense:

Reasons for the surge are complex and varied, experts say.
While many Latin American economies are growing fast, Venezuela's has
continued to shrink.

This could possibly explain some of the crime of the first quarter of
2010, in which the Venezuelan economy did shrink. But Venezuela's
economic growth was the fastest in the hemisphere from 2003-2008, so
the fact that there was one quarter where most of Latin America was
growing and Venezuela was not doesn't explain a ten-year trend.

The gap between rich and poor remains wide, despite
spending on anti-poverty programs, fueling resentment.

A few months ago the UN Economic Commission on Latin America published
a report which showed that Venezuela had reduced inequality from
2002-2008 more than any country in Latin America, and now had the
lowest level of inequality in the region. Not surprisingly, this has
not been reported in the Times.

Police salaries remain low, sapping motivation. And in a
country with the highest inflation rate in the hemisphere, more than
30 percent a year, some officers have turned to supplementing their
incomes with crimes like kidnappings.

Inflation has averaged about 20 percent annually over the last 7
years; however, since nominal incomes grew much more rapidly than
this, most people gained quite a bit in real terms, which is what

This has been standard for NYT reporting on Venezuela over
the past seven years: high inflation is reported regularly but the
real income gains have almost never been noted, with the reader left
to think that most Venezuelans are worse off each year as inflation
erodes their real income: the opposite of what has happened for nearly
six of the last 7 years.

Would you feel sorry for someone whose cost of living went up 20% last
year, while they got a 30% raise? Then you should feel sorry for
someone whose cost of living remained flat, while they got a 10%

But if you understand that, then you understand that it's meaningless
to report high inflation, as if high inflation intrinsically made
people poor, without telling the reader what was happening to real

Many may say "so what else is new" regarding the tendency of the
Times to slant the news in the direction of a hawkish U.S.
foreign policy. But the Times' influence on the US media is
so great that the Times affects the thinking of many people
who never read it. That's why it's important to call them to account.

Oh the press, the press
The freedom of the press
We must be free to say
Whatever's on our chest....
...For whichever side will pay the best!

- Marc Blitztein, "The Cradle Will Rock," 1936

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.