10/15/2012 01:33 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

Columbia Study: Media Drone Strike Reporting Flawed

A new report from Columbia University charges that media reports about drone strikes in Pakistan are hampered by multiple flaws.

The report, from the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, focused on "Counting Drone Strike Deaths." A section of the study looked at how reliable media accounts of drone strikes are. The authors found that, as primary sources, they leave much to be desired:

Media reports of particular drone strikes are based on limited reporting, with the same few journalists and news outlets providing the same materials to multiple wire agencies and national or international press. Moreover, media reports are usually based on limited on-the-ground investigation (with the exception of some Pakistani newspapers, which we note below). Wider and more in-depth reporting is typically reserved for cases where a high-level militant leader has been reported killed, or cases with an unusually high number of overall and reportedly civilian casualties. Reports often provide no more information than the location of the strike, the alleged or apparent target (such as a "compound or a vehicle), the number of people reported dead and an official claim that those killed were militants.

The authors said the lack of access and a need to rely on local stringers meant that it was difficult for media outlets to accurately depict how many civilians had been killed in strikes, and that journalists too often relied on anonymous Pakistani officials for numbers.

"Beyond government sources, media reports rarely provide any additional identifying information about the dead that would enable the reader -- or tracking organizations -- to reach their own judgment on the matter," the authors said.

The study said that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based out of London, was the most reliable source of information about the consequences of drone strikes.

The report was cited by Margaret Sullivan, public editor at the New York Times, in her Sunday column. She called on the paper of record to up its aggressiveness when reporting on drone strikes:

Some of the most important reporting on drone strikes has been done at The Times, particularly the "kill list" article by Scott Shane and Jo Becker last May. Those stories, based on administration leaks, detailed President Obama's personal role in approving whom drones should set out to kill.

Groundbreaking as that article was, it left a host of unanswered questions. The Times and the American Civil Liberties Union have filed Freedom of Information requests to learn more about the drone program, so far in vain. The Times and the A.C.L.U. also want to know more about the drone killing of an American teenager in Yemen, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, also shrouded in secrecy.

But The Times has not been without fault. Since the article in May, its reporting has not aggressively challenged the administration's description of those killed as "militants" -- itself an undefined term. And it has been criticized for giving administration officials the cover of anonymity when they suggest that critics of drones are terrorist sympathizers.

Read the full Columbia report here.



New York Times