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How the news is framed & how it affects your brain

Medialens’s “polite” smear campaign

Medialens is a UK-based media-criticism website which uses the term “smear” more often than anyone else I’ve encountered. Google lists hundreds of pages at Medialens.org which contain the words “smear”, “smears”, “smeared” or “smearing”.

Medialens claim to have been “smeared” by scores of people – everyone from the BBC and pro-war hacks to C4’s Alex Thomson, Guardian columnist George Monbiot and writer Steven Poole. (They’ve even said it was an “outrageous smear” for someone to suggest they were biased in running their message board.*)

And yet… the first time I witnessed a smear campaign played out before my eyes, it was conducted by Medialens (against Iraq Body Count, IBC, the antiwar volunteer group). And it went on for months. IBC was branded, insanely, by Medialens’s followers as “actively aiding and abetting in war crimes”. (The Observer’s Peter Beaumont described Medialens’s attacks on IBC as “deeply vicious”).

“We certainly agree that the IBC project is providing powerful propaganda for people responsible for horrendous war crimes.” (Medialens’s editors, posted to their message board, 23/03/2006)

One of the few people to document this – without being swept up in the anti-IBC hysteria – was Robert Shone (you may already be familiar with Shone’s brilliant, widely-read piece about the Guardian’s “reporting” of the Luis Suarez affair). In a long article published by ZNet, Shone detailed the errors and falsehoods which formed the basis for Medialens’s rhetorical attacks on IBC. To my knowledge, nobody has refuted any of the points made in Shone’s well-researched article – but Medialens’s false (and reputation-damaging) claims continue to circulate, without any correction or apology from Medialens’s “editors”.

This whole affair was recently brought to my attention again by an obscure interview with David Cromwell (Medialens’s co-editor), which states the following:

Cromwell says Media Lens responded to Shone on numerous occasions long ago, but the responses have since dropped off the bottom of the message board. Asked why Media Lens hasn’t responded to Shone’s ZNet article, he says: “We learned a long time ago that constantly responding to unreasonable critics just feeds their obsession and inner turmoil. It’s why we stopped.” Asked if he feels he has ever lost an argument, Cromwell says: “No.”

Cromwell’s “reason” for not responding to Shone’s ZNet article is, of course, nothing more than an unpleasant character slur (or “smear”). And from what I’ve seen of Medialens, this is typical of the way they dismiss persistent criticism from “unimportant” people (their treatment of Daniel Simpson, the former NYT journalist, is another example). I’ll quote some excerpts from Shone’s ZNet piece below – see for yourself if it expresses “unreasonable” “obsession” and “inner turmoil”.

(Incidentally, Shone quotes, at his blog, some of Medialens’s earlier responses – those which “dropped off the bottom of the message board” – they make amusing reading).

So, in the interest of “righting an old wrong” – and to metaphorically spit in the face of “polite” ad-hom “arguments”, here are the excerpts from Robert Shone’s article which provide the minimum you should know about Medialens’s spurious claims:

Media Lens’s errors on Iraq Body Count
by Robert Shone

[Excerpts. Originally published by ZNet, 14/8/09]

One of the main premises of Media Lens’s criticism of 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 Count” (Media Lens, 14/3/06)

This is entirely mistaken. IBC uses non-Western media sources and its database includes hospital, morgue and NGO data. It is able to monitor around 70 major “non-Western” sources, along with 120 “Western” sources. (IBC)

Many incidents/deaths in IBC’s database are from the major wire agencies. This reflects the real-world fact that these organisations pick up the highest percentage of incidents. For example, of all incidents from July 2006 to March 2007 (as documented by IBC), Reuters picked up approximately 50%, compared to 35% from Al Sharqiyah TV (another IBC source), with much lower coverage by other media sources, “Western” or “non-Western (IBC).

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.

Media Lens’s incorrect “Western Media Body Count” premise leads to a more serious fallacy – the claim that IBC’s database is biased towards under-reporting deaths caused specifically by US/UK forces. For example:

“Our research revealed that the IBC database consistently features the same bias – massive numbers of deaths caused by insurgents as compared to a tiny number caused by the ‘coalition’.” (Media Lens, 14/3/06)

This is a bizarre statement, as the IBC database rarely attributes deaths to “insurgents”. In most cases IBC’s database doesn’t directly identify perpetrators, but simply lists the reported target and type of attack. Contrary to what might be inferred from Media Lens’s statements, deaths not clearly attributed by IBC to the ‘coalition’ are not attributed by default to the ‘insurgency’.

IBC pointed out in a press release (March 9, 2006) that “the majority of media reports do not allow a clear identification of the perpetrators or their motives”. IBC stated that “unknown agents” did most of the killing, and that this could include US-led forces.

In another analysis [p23-26], IBC focused on deaths “definitely attributable to coalition forces”, and concluded that “IBC and Lancet [2004] show broadly comparable proportions of deaths attributable to coalition forces”. According to this analysis the Lancet 2004 estimate shows that 43% of violent deaths (for the whole country outside Falluja) were directly caused by US-led forces, compared to IBC’s 47% over the same period.

Some of Media Lens’s initial criticisms of IBC were based on incorrect comparisons with the 2004 Lancet study on Iraqi deaths. For example, 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 time.” (Media Lens, 27/1/06)

This is incorrect in two ways. First, the Lancet study didn’t estimate “civilian” deaths as Media Lens claims (its estimate includes “combatants” as well as civilians). Second, IBC records 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 does not include combatant deaths, whereas the Lancet study does.

Media Lens also wrote, in the same article:

“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.” (Media Lens, 27/1/06)

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.” – Les Roberts, email to Gabriele Zamparini, June 2006).

Media Lens has promoted the claim that IBC may capture only 5% of the true death toll (which would currently suggest a figure of 2 million dead), but this is typically supported with errors and inconsistencies:

“How many know that leading epidemiologist Les Roberts recently estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 Iraqi civilians may have been killed since the invasion? Roberts argues that the most commonly cited source for Iraqi civilian casualties – amateur website Iraq Body Count (IBC) – may have captured less than five per cent of the true total.” (Media Lens, The First Post, July 4, 2006)

The first problem with this is basic arithmetic. IBC’s minimum figure for the period in question (approx 35,000) was 17.5% of Roberts’s lower figure and nearly 12% of his upper figure. Not “less than five per cent”.

The second problem is that it’s inconsistent with the findings of the Lancet 2004 study (co-authored by Roberts). IBC’s earlier count of violent civilian deaths (17,687 for the relevant period – see above) was 30% of Lancet 2004’s estimate of violent deaths (57,600). It’s interesting to note that later estimates, eg from the Iraq Family Health Survey and the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, suggest that IBC is capturing around a third, or more, of violent deaths – contrary to the claims promoted by Media Lens.

“In the past, IBC’s response to the suggestion that violence prevents journalists from capturing many deaths has been, in effect, ‘Prove it!'” (Media Lens)

This is clearly untrue. IBC have always stated that “many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media”. (Media Lens had actually quoted this statement from IBC in an earlier Media Alert). IBC have issued similar statements throughout their website and press releases – for example: “Gaps in recording and reporting suggest that even our highest totals to date may be missing many civilian deaths from violence” (IBC’s front database page).

Methodological Credibility

IBC’s count is not derived from epidemiological survey methods – it’s a completely different type of study, involving corroboration and cataloguing of documented deaths. Despite the low relevance of epidemiology to IBC’s methods, the Media Lens editors wrote, 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”. (Media Lens)

It’s a curious remark, suggesting that IBC (or Media Lens) tried, and failed, to solicit (or search for) epidemiological support for IBC’s non-epidemiological methods. To my knowledge, IBC has never focused its energies on seeking approval from epidemiologists. Nevertheless, several prominent epidemiologists and demographers do appear to have consistently supported IBC’s methods/data. Here are a few recent examples of such support (postdating Media Lens’s New Statesman letter)… [See Shone's full article for these examples and the conclusion to his article.]

———- End of excerpts ———-

UPDATE: David Cromwell has posted a “response” underneath Robert Shone’s ZNet article – dated the day after I published the above (and over 3 years after Shone’s article). It’s a curious “response”, since neither its contents, nor what it links to, address any of Shone’s points. (7/10/12)

* IBC’s Josh Dougherty suggested that Medialens’s policy for banning people was “biased” against IBC’s supporters. Medialens’s editors replied (on their message board, April 2006) that this was an “outrageous smear”.

See also IBC’s longer, more in-depth response to Medialens, Speculation is no substitute

Written by NewsFrames

October 1, 2012 at 7:55 am

Posted in Medialens, Smears

9 Responses

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  1. I love how Cromwell says he’s never lost an argument. Is he serious or is it a joke gone flat? Maybe the interviewer “smeared” him by quoting out of context.

    Sameer

    October 1, 2012 at 8:49 am

    • As one of the “unimportant” people, thanks for your post.

      Philip Cross

      October 1, 2012 at 9:38 am

  2. I should add to the above that I edited the excerpts very slightly (with the author’s permission) – just to give a more readable flow from one chunk to the next. A few of the links from the original article were expired (eg the one to the edipemiological research centre) so I’ve updated those. Encouraging to see a lot of hits already this morning.

    NewsFrames

    October 1, 2012 at 9:53 am

    • That endless list of people who have ‘smeared’ medialens (according to medialens) – I suspect you’ll be on it soon too. ;)

      JohnL

      October 1, 2012 at 10:25 am

  3. It’s an excellent article, but remember that a lot of people will always see IBC as the group that provided the estimate that was ‘too low’ (because they only counted documented deaths, and necessarily omitted the unreported ones – as they themselves acknowledge). Medialens has “exploited” the frustration that many, many people felt over the media coverage on Iraq by turning it into a campaign against a group they thought they could actually influence. Unfortunately, it seems to have turned into a hate campaign instead, and now Medialens’ giant egos won’t let them correct what they got wrong.

    Mike Pierce

    October 1, 2012 at 10:06 am

  4. I’ve never heard of Medialens but I think I know the type. Thanks for the educational points, the linked post by Shone on Suarez is superb.

    rob

    October 1, 2012 at 11:00 am

  5. Medialens practise, on a smaller scale, the very thing they so despise in the media – they marginalise (with various character-discrediting tricks) the “little people” who criticise their actions. They’re a perfect illustration of that Nietzsche saying, “Those who do battle with monsters must take care that they do not thereby become a monster”.

    The Steven Poole example cited in the above piece is a good one. In response to a negative criticism from Poole (he wrote in the Guardian that Medialens write “childishly apocalyptic polemic”), the Medialens editors replied: “Poole can’t focus on our anger… So the idea that we’re emotional and childish is the next best smear”.

    It’s curious, because Poole doesn’t actually say they’re “emotional” – just that their claims sound childish. Medialens are the ones who like to discredit people by implying they are “emotional” or “angry” – the ad-hom stuff. You can see from another example in the above piece that this is Medialens’s preferred way of dealing with critics such as Shone.

    (And, incidentally, in dealing with myself. Cromwell recently wrote that I was “upset on Shone’s behalf”. How could he know that I was “upset” [I wasn't]? Because, in his words, I’d posted “Four tweets within an hour or two” linking to a Shone article. He then went on to insinuate that only Shone could be “upset” on Shone’s behalf, and that therefore I’m actually Shone in disguise! That’s how he responds to serious challenges of his errors and smears of IBC).

    • Well, judging from the thread which contains the post you link to, it appears the Medialens fraternity have a little too much interest in identities and “finding people out”, which doesn’t bode well for an influential future career in radical media analysis, or whatever it is. I agree, you’d think they’d spend more time addressing the matters of substance raised by the znet critique than in playing internet shame-you I-Spy.

      Andre SC (@Andre_Serov)

      October 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm

  6. Only just read this (bookmarked it after George Monbiot mentioned it on Twitter). It’s a good article. I’m ashamed to say that I was taken in by the Medialens campaign against IBC for a while. I never got as far as believing that IBC were in league with war criminals (which was the daft claim made on Medialen’s message board), but I did believe the material about an undercount specifically of US/UK-caused deaths. Medialens should definitely correct that, as it’s a very serious allegation. No excuses.

    Ewan Mathers

    October 21, 2012 at 11:01 pm


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