How the AP (and WaPo and NY Times) Lie with Statistics

January 12 Update:

AP Amends False Claim

After CAMERA informed journalists of the problems detailed here, the Associated Press changed its piece, noting that a study of damage in Gaza counted structures that were "likely either damaged or destroyed" as opposed to "destroyed." The other misrepresentations were not substantively addressed, and no appended correction informs readers of the change. See below for a detailed update.

On Thursday, the Associated Press argued that Israel’s fight against Hamas “now sits among the deadliest and most destructive in history.”

Before sunrise the next morning, the language was quietly changed to instead cite wars in “recent” history. But the stealth edit did little to redress the many glaring problems in the piece, the latest in a parade of news stories that invent, distort, or otherwise misuse statistics to unfavorably compare the Gaza war with others across the globe wars.

An image by researchers Corey Scher and Jamon Van Den Hoek refers to "likely damaged or destroyed" buildings.

The reason for this assembly line of manipulations, it seems, is precisely to support overblown charges like the one that opens the AP story: Israel’s response to Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre is the most destructive… the deadliest… the biggest… the worst….

Urban combat is a notoriously destructive endeavor. Add subterranean warfare — the need to deal with the combat tunnels that snake below Gaza’s neighborhoods and serve as a lifeline for Hamas militants and a death trap for Israelis — and there’s no shortage of ruin in Gaza that could be discussed on its own terms.

But apparently that wouldn’t suffice. So cue the embellishments — like the one at the very center of the AP piece:   

Israel’s offensive has destroyed over two-thirds of all structures in northern Gaza and a quarter of buildings in the southern area of Khan Younis, according to an analysis of Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellite data by Corey Scher of the CUNY Graduate Center and Jamon Van Den Hoek of Oregon State University, experts in mapping damage during wartime.

Destroyed? The satellite data used by the study’s authors can suggest which buildings have been damaged, but not whether they have been destroyed. When we double-checked with the researchers, Van Den Hoek reiterated that they only count structures as “likely damaged or destroyed” because, he explained, “we don't yet have means of distinguishing categories of damage severity.”

Which means the AP’s claim is egregiously false. And that’s hardly its only manipulation.

The second sentence, meant to support the lead sentence’s claim about the Gaza war being among the “most destructive” wars, reads:

In just over two months, the offensive has wreaked more destruction than the razing of Syria’s Aleppo between 2012 and 2016, Ukraine’s Mariupol or, proportionally, the Allied bombing of Germany in World War II.

The worst… what? By what measure of damage does Gaza surpass these conflicts? The Associated Press doesn’t say.

The piece later claims that 33 percent of buildings across Gaza and two-thirds in northern Gaza have been “destroyed” (again, a falsehood counting any degree of damage as destruction). But the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which the AP has frequently cited in the past, has assessed that in Mariupol, one of the AP’s points of comparison, “up to 90 per cent of residential buildings have been damaged or destroyed.” The Associated Press itself had reported that Russian munitions left their mark “on nearly every building” in Mariupol. 

Is the AP referring to the absolute number of damaged houses rather than the percentage? Maybe. But it would be an odd comparison, since Mariupol is less than half the size of the Gaza Strip. Aleppo, too, is half as big as the Hamas-run territory — and the relevant land area is even smaller, since the rebel militias that came under devastating Syrian and Russian bombardment had only occupied a portion of the city.

So does the claim refer to the density of destruction? If so, then again, it is dubious comparison. The damage in Aleppo was not nearly as densely packed as other in Syrian cities, including Raqqa, Homs, Deir ez Zor, Damascus, and Hama. Why would the AP ignore more extreme examples?  

Whatever the reporter means to compare, it’s clear that the piece doesn’t play fair. Consider this passage:

During the 2014-2017 campaign to defeat IS in Iraq, the coalition carried out nearly 15,000 strikes across the country, according to Airwars, a London-based independent group that tracks recent conflicts. By comparison, the Israeli military said last week it has conducted 22,000 strikes in Gaza.

The most…. But not really. The Associated Press cherry-picked this particular Iraq war, but chose to ignore entirely the 2003 Iraq war, in which US-led forces dropped over 29,000 munitions on Iraqi targets in the first 30 days of fighting — double the rate of Israel, which dropped the same estimated number of munitions but in twice the time.

And what does the AP mean when claiming, at the top of the piece, that the Gaza offensive has caused more destruction “proportionally” than the Allied bombing of Germany in World War II?

The author later elaborates:

By some measures, destruction in Gaza has outpaced Allied bombings of Germany during World War II.

Between 1942 and 1945, the allies attacked 51 major German cities and towns, destroying about 40-50% of their urban areas, said Robert Pape, a U.S. military historian. Pape said this amounted to 10% of buildings across Germany, compared to over 33% across Gaza, a densely populated territory of just 140 square miles (360 square kilometers).

In other words, the proportion of destroyed buildings in the Gaza Strip is greater than in Germany only when comparing the small, densely packed Strip to the entirety of Germany, which in its current borders is nearly 1000 times larger than Hamas’s territory, and which was spaced out to a small fraction of Gaza’s population density. We can consider a closer equivalent within Germany: The city of Hamburg, which is far closer to the size of the Gaza Strip, and where during just eight-days in 1943, four Allied bombing killed around 40,000 people and destroyed over half of the city’s homes.

And if the Associate Press considers Allied bombing during World War II an informative point of comparison, why pick and choose? In just two days of bombing in 1945, the US killed about 100,000 civilians in Tokyo and destroyed 250,000 buildings.

We can forgive the AP for failing to find a perfect analogy. “[N]o military in the world has faced the context Israel faces today,” says John Spencer, a top expert in urban warfare. “No military in the world has fought a war against a military of 30,000 plus fighters (defenders) embedded in underground cities purposely interwoven into the dense civilian population” while dealing with incessant, indiscriminate rocket fire into their own cities. But that doesn’t excuse the AP “hunting for data,” as Spencer termed it, to promote a narrative.

Nor would the “everybody is doing it” excuse suffice — though it is true that plenty of others, including some of the largest and most influential newspapers, are likewise guilty of inventing and manipulating statistics.

A Parade of Distorted Statistics

• Less than a week into the war, the Washington Post reported that Israel had already dropped the same quantity of munitions on Gaza as the US dropped on Afghanistan in its most intense full year of bombing:

"Israel is dropping in less than a week what the U.S. was dropping in Afghanistan in a year, in a much smaller, much more densely populated area, where mistakes are going to be magnified," said Marc Garlasco, a military adviser at the Dutch organization PAX for Peace and a former U.N. war crimes investigator in Libya. He helped plan airstrikes for the Pentagon during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The highest number of bombs and other munitions dropped in one year during the war in Afghanistan was just over 7,423, Garlasco said, citing U.S. military records. During the entire war in Libya, the NATO alliance reported dropping more than 7,600 bombs and missiles from planes, according to a U.N. report.

But this is wildly false. The US had dropped 17,500 munitions on Afghanistan in just 76 days of bombing in 2001. The newspaper eventually corrected after outreach by CAMERA, but not before the fake statistic was echoed by the Los Angeles Timesmanaging editor, NBC’s Mehdi Hasan, Al Jazeera, the Guardian, J Street, and members of Congress.

• In a front-page story published on Nov. 26, the New York Times claimed that “Israel has killed more women and children than have been killed in Ukraine.” This is a flagrant misrepresentation, which relied on Ukraine casualty figures that, per the newspaper’s own source, are “considerablylower than the actual number of civilian deaths. The paper stealthily changed its language online, but it left the error uncorrected in print.

The piece also claimed that “more women and children have been reported killed in Gaza in less than two months than the roughly 7,700 civilians documented as killed by U.S. forces and their international allies in the entire first year of the invasion of Iraq in 2003,” citing estimates from a group called Iraq Body Count. But again, data from the Times own source revealed the newspaper’s egregious dishonesty. The overwhelming majority the Iraq casualties occurred in a just over a month of fighting, after which the regime was overthrown and major combat operations had ended. So contrary to the newspaper’s argument, the rates of claimed civilian casualties in the two conflicts were essentially equal. The newspaper refused to correct.

• Both the Times story cited above and a piece in the Wall Street Journal had misrepresented comments by a senior State Department official about casualties in Gaza. The Times reported, “Barbara Leaf, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told a House committee this month that American officials thought the civilian casualties were ‘very high, frankly, and it could be that they’re even higher than are being cited.’” Similarly, the Journal claimed that “The U.S. State Department’s highest official for Middle East affairs said that the civilian death toll in Gaza is likely higher than estimates suggest.” The official, though, wasn’t speaking about the civilian death toll, but rather the total number of deaths, Hamas included.

• This week, on Dec. 22, the Washington Post reported that the displacement of two million people in Gaza’s population was “the largest displacement in the region since Israel’s creation in 1948.” In Syria, on the Israeli border opposite from Gaza, 12 million people have recently been displaced, according to the United Nations. In Yemen, over four million have been displaced.

The image of a New York Times headline shared on X by Aviva Klompas.

• That same day, the print edition of the New York Times ran a large headline announcing, “Gaza Deaths Surpass Any Arab War Losses in 40 Years,” a reference to the Hamas government’s claim of 20,000 deaths in its fight against Israel. The same New York Times had previously reported on 470,000 deaths counted in Syria’s war; 150,000 deaths counted in Yemen’s war; 150,000 deaths counted in Lebanon’s civil war; 500,000 Iraqi deaths counted from the country’s war with Iran; and 150,000 Iraqi deaths during the gulf war. (The text of the article itself correctly referred to “Arab conflicts with Israel,” though that doesn’t help those who relied on the newspaper’s headline to be accurate.)

The Associated Press piece fits neatly into this parade of flamboyant distortions, and serves as just the latest example of how a zeal to push a narrative of Israeli excesses sends sober journalism slinking ever further into the distance. 

Update: Associated Press Corrects

After CAMERA informed AP editors of

  • the inaccurate claim that an analysis by Scher and Van Den Hoek counted “destroyed” buildings as opposed to damaged ones;
  • the questionable claim that the Gaza war has wreaked more destruction than Russia’s offensive in Mariupol, despite UN estimates showing more damage in the latter; and
  • the arbitrary comparison of Israeli airstrikes to those in 2014-2017 Iraq, while inexplicably ignoring the much larger number of airstrikes in 2003 Iraq

the agency redressed the first issue. Where the piece had characterized a study as finding that "Israel’s offensive has destroyed over two-thirds of all structures in northern Gaza," it now correctly notes that the study looked at "likely either damaged or destroyed."

A minor modification was made to the language about Mariupol. Rather than account for the UN estimate of destruction there, AP changed the statement of fact that "the offensive has wreaked more destruction than" the razing of Mariupol to instead state that "researchers say the offensive has wreaked more destruction."

The cherry-picked data about Iraq was left unchanged.

While the date at the top of the story was changed from Dec. 22 to Jan. 11, there is no indication that a correction was made to the story, as journalistic norms would call for. 

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