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Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Numbers go all fuzzy

Yesterday *every* news channel (and I have many to choose from) was dominated by the news that US soldiers had killed 54 attackers following an ambush. Around 8PM a story emerged that Iraqi police could only confirm 8 dead including one definite civilian. That story is now something of a footnote to the main news.

This report is interesting. The figure of 54 was based on soldiers reporting casulaties they saw / caused. The figure of 8 is based on counting bodies. That's not to say the idea that some bodies were removed is ridiculous, but 46 bodies? Surely there'd be blood, not to mention bits.

This is like Vietnam reporting, when any firefight was reported as a victory and troops regularly made up casualty numbers after battles. This is important. Yesterday we were told that 54 dead attackers represented 'the heaviest fighting since the end of the war', the kind of event that could impact on policy decisions. 8 dead might not have that kind of influence, but no-one seems to know for sure and the figure of 54 is in the public consicousness. It is at this point and many others like it that policy and reality start to diverge.

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