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Media Coverage of Violent Deaths in Iraq: An Opportunistic Capture-Recapture Assessment



Western media coverage of the violence associated with the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq has contrasted in magnitude and nature with population-based survey reports.


The purpose of this study was to evaluate the extent to which first-hand reports of violent deaths were captured in the English language media by conducting in-depth interviews with Iraqi citizens.


The England-based Iraq Body Count (IBC) has methodically monitored media reports and recorded each violent death in Iraq that could be confirmed by two English language media sources. Using the capturerecapture method, 25 Masters' Degree students were assigned to interview residents in Iraq and asked them to describe 10 violent deaths that occurred closest to their home since the 2003 invasion. Students then matched these reports with those documented in IBC. These reports were matched both individually and crosschecked in groups to obtain a percentage of those deaths captured in the English language media.


Eighteen out of 25 students successfully interviewed someone in Iraq. Six contacted individuals by telephone, while the others conducted interviews via e-mail. One out of seven (14%) phone contacts refused to participate. Seventeen out of 18 primary interviewees resided in Baghdad, however, some interviewees reported deaths of neighbors that occurred while the neighbors were elsewhere. The Baghdad residents reported 161 deaths in total, 39 of which (24%) were believed to be reported in the press as summarized by IBC. An additional 13 deaths (8%) might have been in the database, and 61 (38%) were absolutely not in the database.


The vast majority of violent deaths (estimated from the results of this study as being between 68–76%) are not reported by the press. Efforts to monitor events by press coverage or reports of tallies similar to those reported in the press, should be evaluated with the suspicion applied to any passive surveillance network: that it may be incomplete. Even in the most heavily reported conflicts, the media may miss the majority of violent events.


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