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"Peace News has compiled an exemplary record... its tasks have never been more critically important than they are today." Noam Chomsky

When a respected polling agency drew up a huge new estimate of Iraq's death toll, journalism student Polina Aksamentova expected better of the media.

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Also in this Issue

Feature by Polina Aksamentova

When the polling agency ORB's findings came out [see last issue], I was sure that The Guardian, The Independent, The New York Times and other major papers would cry out in outrage and pronounce in thick, black ink across their respective front pages that 1.2 million Iraqis had died because of the Iraq war: a genocide revealed.

I expected fervent discussion, indignation and controversy across the entire world.

I was wrong: the poll was ignored.

Although it was hardly a surprise to my editor, Milan Rai, I was stunned.

I could not believe that journalists of the free world would self-censor themselves.

As a journalist student, I was taught that journalists served the public. My disillusionment was great.

34 seconds

The poll came out on 14 September and BBC's Newsnight carried the story that night - for 34 seconds.

Host Gavin Esler said that the new number is significantly higher than the previous estimate of 650,000, published by The Lancet in October 2006 and that the Iraqi government puts the death toll at 75,000.

The following day The Observer reported the findings. The shocking 1.2m-dead figure was not given much prominence, however.

The ORB story was paired with an article about Alan Greenspan's controversial memoir, and it came second. The headline read: “Greenspan admits Iraq was about oil, as deaths put at 1.2m”.

And that was all the coverage the poll received from major media outlets. I couldn't believe it.

Outrage soon poured in from media watchdogs. Newsnight editor Peter Barron was one of the few to reply to a letter of complaint from MediaLens.

Barron was happy that the program reported the findings - 34 seconds or not - and wrote that it was important to put them in “context.”

My quest

In my own quest for answers, I called the editors of The Guardian, The Observer and The Independent (who did not answer), and emailed the writers of the Observer story (who did not respond).

Hattie Garlick, news editor of The Times, told me she had never heard of the ORB poll and then never replied to my email with all the information.

I had a rather rude and brisk conversation with a man (he did not identify himself) at the news desk of Channel 4, who abruptly transferred me to the messaging system when I explained my query.

And, at the BBC, the advisor who dealt with my complaint, simply answered: “It's a news editor's personal choice what they choose to cover. I can't give you any more information.”

To be rudely treated and ignored by journalists, who know exactly how vital and hard interviews can be, was surprising enough.

But, to understand why the media was so hostile to the story was still harder.

Four reasons?

To me, there could be only four reasons for not publishing the poll: the findings were not newsworthy, the media were ignorant, the polling agency was not credible or the editors were scared of the backlash.

The first two can be dismissed right away. The ORB findings put the death toll in Iraq higher than that of Rwandan genocide - what can be more newsworthy?

All media outlets also had to be aware of the poll. The BBC report and the Observer's story would have alerted them.

Credibility could not have been the issue either. ORB is widely known and respected. Its clients include the Bank of Scotland, the Conservative Party and the BBC itself. The Guardian and the White House have quoted ORB surveys in the past.

Parfois bag body dance Black cross And, to top it off, the ORB was awarded the international quality standard by SGS Systems and Services Certification, one of the world's leading certification agencies, this August.

Fear

That leaves the worst crime of all: fear.

bag dance Parfois Black body cross But, fear of what? It is an insult to the journalists of oppressed countries, like Russia and Burma, to even suggest this. What can UK or US media fear from the government?

dance bag body cross Parfois Black I contacted the editors of Media Lens, but their reply did not help me to understand how this happened.

So, after this unsatisfactory journey I concluded that the media were simply afraid of raising the dust.

dance Black body cross bag Parfois They were afraid to report such atrocious news; afraid of the number being wrong, maybe; afraid of the political consequence and, in essence, afraid of doing their jobs.

At least, Newsnight's treatment of the poll indicated fear. The BBC was testing the waters. It announced the news briefly and waited for the others to make a move.

Certainly, no one could accuse them of not covering the story; but no one could say they were blowing the whistle either.

The last 34 seconds were just the thing. And, if there was an outcry they could have always picked it up at the top of the hour the next day with “as we reported yesterday...”

cross dance Black body bag Parfois Something of that nature must have passed, because Esler recognized the importance of the findings during broadcast. He said: “the studys' likely to fuel controversy over the true, human cost of the war.”

But, of course, no controversy ensued, because the media failed at their job - the public remains uniformed.

I was always under the impression that the media - for the most part - helped decipher the lies of the government.

The media's treatment of the ORB poll proved me sadly wrong. It was a blow to my idealism and to my profession of choice.

Polina Aksamentova is a journalism student at Binghamton University, New York State, currently working with Peace News in London.

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