Fifteen miles north of the National Palace in Port au Prince, along Haiti’s azure coastline, is a place called Titanyen. From Kreyol, this name translates to something like “less than nothing.” Titanyen feels practically barren, mostly dusty hills with some farmers herding animals. On one of these hills looms a large cross with strips of black cloth tied to it. These rags flap in the breeze like a murder of crows, memorializing the victims of the 2010 earthquake who are buried at the spot in mass graves.

The dirt at Titanyen today is undisturbed and covered in thick brush. There’s no trace of the bodies, widely photographed by the media and shown around the world, being bulldozed into ground. The process of clearing the dead from the streets was chaotic and rushed, and as a result no one knows exactly how many are buried there. The Haitian government, as reported by Time in January 2010, says as many as 150,000 were buried at Titanyen.

The official death toll of the quake is 316,000, according to the Haitian government. It’s a number that was arrived at mysteriously. In the first year after the quake, the government had set the death toll at 230,000, and the media and NGOs widely repeated the figure. On the first anniversary in January 2011, the 316,000 number was made official without explanation by then-prime minister Jean-Max Bellerive. Some viewed the revision as an effort to ensure the international community’s pledged reconstruction funds did not dry up.

The story around Haiti’s earthquake death toll has only grown murkier and more controversial in the last year. In October 2010, a report was published in the journal Medicine, Conflict and Survival that estimated the probable death toll at 158,000 people. It received little media coverage. In May 2011, Agence France-Presse received a copy for an unpublished report originally commissioned by the United States Agency for International Development, which suggested the number might possibly be as low as 46,000.

But journalists have continued to report the official Haitian government numbers as fact without acknowledging these dissenting views. Undoubtedly, debating the specifics of death tolls can feel distasteful and even disrespectful. But how the media reports those numbers—whether in the context of natural disasters such as the quake in Haiti or conflicts such as Iraq, Darfur, or Sri Lanka—is critically important. Such reports can and do influence policy, public perception, and, as a result, people’s lives.

In particular, the story of how the USAID report came to be and the controversy it has created is a study in why numbers aren’t infallible facts. On the contrary, they can be political tools. They can be emotional. And they can obscure the truth.

In the fall of 2010, USAID approached a Washington-based consulting firm to carry out a study. The agency wanted to know how its rubble-removal projects—on which USAID had spent $100 million—improved Haitians’ ability to return to their homes. A team from LTL Strategies, an international development and business-consulting firm, spent six months designing the survey and the methodology.

The team randomly chose fifty-five control points around Port au Prince. From December 17, 2010 to January 29, 2011, they went to each of them and interviewed nearly 2,000 residents, asking them a series of questions about where they went after the earthquake and their current living situation. The team found was that rubble-removing projects helped anywhere between 34,000 and 56,000 Haitians—an estimated 10 percent of the total displaced population—return to their homes. They also found that as many as 629,000 people were still living in houses that could collapse in bad weather or earthquake tremors, and another 217,000 people were living in buildings that could collapse at any time.

In the process of collecting this data, the researchers inadvertently discovered other numbers, ones that they had not necessarily set out to find. When they visited a home they had to ask who lived there before the quake and lived there now. Any discrepancies needed to be explained. Were there people living in a camp? Had a family member moved to the countryside? A different home? Or were they not there because they had been killed in the earthquake? In cases of completely empty houses, the researchers went to neighbors for this information.

Maura R. O'Connor is a freelance foreign correspondent. This year she was awarded a Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellowship and will be reporting on American foreign aid from Haiti, Afghanistan, and Africa.