As we’ve noted before, Iraq is shaping up to be the defining issue in this presidential election. That’s why it’s so crucial that reporters get their facts right about it, particularly when they’re dealing with the politically sensitive topic of U.S. casualties.

Unsurprisingly, they haven’t. In his Washington Post column yesterday, Jim Hoagland wrote: “[N]o one can express unhappiness about the overall decline in U.S. military casualties that has followed the change in tactics and the June 28 transfer of political responsibility. July’s U.S. death toll is expected to be less than half of the April figure.”

And last Thursday, as an alert reader pointed out, Adam Nagourney and Richard Stevenson of The New York Times reported that one factor in President Bush’s favor in the election campaign was the fact that “[i]n Iraq, the transfer of sovereignty has led to some reduction in American casualties.”

In fact, U.S. troops are dying at a slightly higher rate since sovereignty was transferred to the Iraqis. Yes, July’s death toll has to date been lower than April’s, as Hoagland asserts. But April was by far the bloodiest month of the occupation. The only possible reason to use it as a point of comparison is to be able to declare that casualty rates are falling.

To anyone but Hoagland, it would make more sense to compare the period directly after the transfer of sovereignty with the period directly before it. And as Hoagland’s colleague George Will pointed out yesterday in his own column which ran opposite Hoagland’s, “[m]ore U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq in July (48 as of Saturday afternoon, Eastern time) than in June (42).”

Perhaps Hoagland and the Timesmen were using casualty rates over the entire occupation period as a point of comparison. That seems to us like the best way of all to consider the issue. But even by that measure, they’re wrong: Between May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared the end of major combat operations, and June 30, 2004, the average monthly death toll for U.S. soldiers was 53, according to GlobalSecurity.org, a non-partisan policy research group. Between July 1 and 24, 48 were killed, on average two a day — meaning that July’s death toll is on a pace to exceed the average rate.

(To be sure, “casualties” technically refers to troops wounded as well as killed, and July’s projected tally of wounded appears to be slightly below the monthly average. But to use this fact to declare, without elaboration, that casualties are down, is beyond disingenuous. Besides, in Hoagland’s case, it’s he himself who makes deaths, rather than casualties, the crux of the argument, by pointing out that July’s death toll will likely be lower than April’s.)

A Campaign Desk reader last week brought Nagourney and Stevenson’s error to the attention of The New York Times public editor’s office. In response, he was told there was no need for a correction, since “[t]he sentence is rather vague in that it does not refer to a time frame or give much in the way of comparison for casualty figures.”

Which, of course, is part of the problem. Reporting that clearly conveys a misleading impression — intentionally or not — may not be fair game for The Times’ public editor, but it is for us. Both Hoagland’s column, and Nagourney and Stevenson’s report, fit the bill on that score. And there are few issues on which it’s more important to get it right.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.