The political abuse of statistics continues.
In an action alert sent to its email list today, the liberals at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting claim that Iraqi civilian casualty estimates of 16,500-20,000 offered by the network newscasts, including NBC's Brian Williams, were too low:
NBC's Williams seemed to be referring to an estimate of Iraqi civilian casualties that none of the networks saw fit to mention: According to a study published in the respected British medical journal The Lancet (10/29/04), about 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the war. The majority of deaths were due to violence, primarily as a result of U.S.-led military action. One of the researchers on the project said that the estimate is likely a conservative one (New York Times, 10/29/04). It's certainly a more scientific estimate than the Iraq Body Count figure cited by ABC, which is, as that project's website notes, a "compilation of civilian deaths that have been reported by recognized sources.... It is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media."
Saying that "about 100,000 Iraqi civilians" have died vastly overstates the precision of the number that was found. As Fred Kaplan explained on Slate, the 95% confidence interval of the Lancet study extended from 8,000-196,000 deaths. That means that the researchers are 95% sure that the true figure lies between those two vastly different numbers. While the Iraqi Body Count estimates may indeed be too low, can you blame the networks from avoiding such a shaky estimate?
My advice: don't trust FAIR (or any of the supposed media watchdogs) without checking the facts yourself.
(For more, see Ben Fritz's 2002 Spinsanity column on the pattern of distortions from FAIR and the Media Research Center.)
Update 3/22: As a result of an Instapundit link, there's a very useful comment thread below that's worth reading and includes a number of helpful links. A few key points: (1) Many analysts believe Fred Kaplan's article is deeply flawed. I was citing it mainly to support my claim that the study has a very wide confidence interval. That is correct. His other critiques of the methodology used in the Lancet study may not be valid, so I've deleted a statement referring to them above. (2) Critics point out that the breadth of the confidence interval does not mean that each point within it is equally likely. That is also correct, and I did not mean to imply otherwise. As I wrote in a comment posted below, I would have no objection to the networks saying that the Lancet study suggests that the total casualty figure is higher than 20,000 (and possibly much higher), but the wide confidence intervals attributable to the cluster sampling survey design make it understandable that they didn't. (3) The study estimates the total number of "excess deaths," not civilian deaths. Thus FAIR's claim is doubly wrong. Finally, here is a link to the Lancet study (PDF).