Media Blog

The Washington Post‘s Questionable Death Toll

The Washington Post’s lead story yesterday was “Toll in Iraq’s Deadly Surge: 1,300.” Citing a Baghdad morgue, the article claims that 1,300 people have been killed as a result of the sectarian violence following the destruction of the Shiite mosque last week. Yesterday’s story made no mention of any other death-toll numbers reported, except a 1,020 figure reported by the Iraqi police. But the WP quickly discounted this lower figure, writing, “[T]hat figure was based on paperwork that is sometimes delayed before reaching police headquarters.”
A NYT story today, however, is still reporting 379 deaths, nowhere near the 1,300 in the WP story. I searched the Washington Post this morning to see if they had followed up on this discrepancy. I finally found the story I was looking for, back on page A13. The title of the piece on their website is “Pressure Seen on Probes at Baghdad Morgue,” which is even more ambiguous than the early print edition I read, titled “Pressure on Death Count at Baghdad Morgue.”
The story’s main source is John Pace, the former U.N. human rights chief for Iraq. He claims there has been “pressure not to investigate the soaring number of apparent cases of execution and torture in the country.” And:

Pace […] said officials connected with the morgue had been put “under a lot of these pressures” and had been threatened in the past and told not to investigate the killings of those brought to the morgue.

In all of Pace’s reported quotes, there is no mention that this alleged pressure is directly related to the recent violence, or has any relevance to the WP’s claims of 1,300 dead bodies in Baghdad. But the WP isn’t apologizing for any possible exaggeration. Instead, they question Jafari’s bad math:

On Tuesday, the acting director of the morgue, Qais Hassan, denied that the morgue had received 1,300 bodies, according to the Reuters news agency. He said only 309 bodies had come in. However, even that figure, added to the more than 80 deaths in cities outside Baghdad reported by news media from Wednesday to Monday, exceeds the 379 deaths nationwide that Jafari cited.

We have the director of the morgue reporting 309, plus around 80 reported outside Baghdad, which brings the total to a maximum of 398. The Washington Post reported 902 more than that; instead of issuing an upfront cautionary note about its own numbers, the Post questions Jafari’s. Post readers deserve better than that —and before page A13.

Nathan GouldingNathan Goulding is the Chief Technology Officer of National Review. He often goes by “Chaka” in NRO’s popular blog The Corner. While having never attended a class in computer science, ...


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