September 9, 2004

Although many journalists profess a hatred for math, they love using numbers as a hook.

The military death totals in Iraq became the latest example of that attraction. On September 7, news organizations reported that the number had reached 1,000. It has climbed since then. That number prompted a number of stories.

The Washington Post labeled it a “milestone.” A story in The New York Times referred to it as a  “sober milestone.”  The Los Angeles Times painted it as a “grim milestone.” Reuters reported the total as a “politically sensitive benchmark.”  I heard a Fox News television report calling the U.S. casualties “a terrible milestone.”

A milestone is defined as “an important event…in the history of a nation,… a turning point.”  A benchmark represents “a standard by which something can be measured or judged.”

But how do we determine the importance of such an event? What number constitutes a turning point? What’s the standard?

An email from Michael Stanton to Romenesko prior to the death toll reaching 1,000 presaged such questions and sought advice about how best to approach them. Stanton asked: “Do people believe that this is the kind of “milestone” that is significant to the readership in terms of helping them come to terms with the scope of the nation’s involvement in Iraq, or should the 1,000th death not be treated any differently than those that came before?”

He noted some of the political implications as well. Stanton wondered: “…will the coverage be influenced by how the campaigns choose to respond? Should it be? It’s a tricky landscape, but an important issue that seems worthy of some advance planning.”

I agree that focusing on that number, or any number, can be challenging. Stanton posed good questions to ask before the “event” happened. They still serve as valuable questions that journalist can consider as casualties mount and other “milestones” emerge.

Numbers do tell us something. But what?

As I read various news websites’ notation of how the 1,000 deaths constituted a milestone, I began looking for clues as to why this number was significant enough to attract the attention of news people and to dedicate prominent space to it. I tried to figure out why the number 1,000 stood out.

A number of the stories I read didn’t make that clear. Some simply reported the number. Others noted the political sensitivity to that number, noting that Senator John Kerry had referred to the number and the divisiveness it might provoke.

But why was the number 1,000 more important than any other number, say 700, or 825, or 910?

For example, a political furor erupted briefly last April when ABC’s “Nightline,” anchored by Ted Koppel, aired a special report that planned to name the 500 troops who had died in combat in the Iraq War. Then Nightline decided to add another 200 who died in non-combat situations. The controversy prompted Poynter’s Al Tompkins to interview Koppel for more understanding about “Nightline’s” coverage.

Obviously, there’s something attractive about large, round numbers, especially if they include many zeroes. Yet, how do news consumers sort out the value of such numbers? And this includes how journalists report other numbers as well: Unemployment rates, job growth figures, inflation rates, sales and profit numbers, etc. We need to offer the number and the story beneath it.

With regard to the U.S. military deaths in Iraq, I asked Poynter librarian David Shedden to help me with an historical comparison of U.S. military deaths in other conflicts. He found an Associated Press report that noted the following:

  • Afghan War: 135 deaths from Oct. 7, 2001 through Sept. 3, 2004

  • Persian Gulf War: 382 deaths, 1990-91

  • Vietnam War: 58, 209 deaths, 1955-1975

  • Korean War: 36,574 deaths, 1950-53

  • World War II: 405,399 deaths, 1941-1946

  • World War I: 116,516 deaths, 1917-1918

  • Spanish American War: 2,446 deaths, 1898

  • Civil War: 364,511 Union deaths, and approximately 133, 821 Confederate deaths, 1861-1865

  • Mexican War: 13,283 deaths, 1846-1848

  • War of 1812: 2,260, 1812-1815

  • Revolutionary War: 4,435 deaths, 1775-1783

Now those numbers alone don’t tell the whole story either. They also don’t tell us the number of military deaths suffered by the other countries involved in the conflict. But at least they offer one standard of comparison. The duration of time in which the deaths take place offers another context. A number of other stories made efforts to flesh out the numbers.

In The New York Times story noted earlier, reporter Monica Davey put the death toll in some perspective. Davey used the number of deaths to provide information about those affected in a variety of categories: Age, geography, race, ethnicity, branch of service, cause of death, rank, and gender. She also found people who helped humanize the numbers. 

Associated Press reporters Sharon Cohen and Pauline Arrillaga wrote a piece that tried to answer the question posed in the subhead: “What does it mean that 1,000 Americans have died?” They compared the death toll to other wars, noted where those who died came from, including those born in foreign countries. In addition to other breakdowns, they showed the impact the deaths had on certain communities.

As journalists, we report numbers only as one dimension of the journalistic process. More work must follow. Our journalism improves when we:

  • Tell why we’re using the number;

  • Address the meaning of the number; 

  • Explain its relationship to other numbers;

  • Indicate how the number illuminates our understanding;

  • Provide historical comparisons;

  • Offer insight into its impact on the public psyche;

  • Show its significance in the public’s decision-making process.

When we do journalism by the numbers, we need to offer not just the count, but the context.

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Aly Colón is the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Previously, Colón led…
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