Journalist Jeffrey Bachman studied the Times' and Washington Post's coverage of US drone strikes launched between 2009 and 2014 under President Barack Obama's leadership. Bachman chose the two papers as representatives of the "elite press."
"My conclusion," he writes, "both papers have substantially underrepresented the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, failed to correct the public record when evidence emerged that their reporting was wrong and ignored the importance of international law."
Bachman analyzed 81 stories from the Times and 26 from the Post – all published within two days of particular strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.
The reporting in the two papers was compared to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism's coverage of the same drone strikes. BIJ's methodology has been endorsed by the Center for Civilians in Conﬂict and Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School.
The 81 NYT articles covered the same number of attacks. BIJ found that civilians were killed in 26 of the 81 attacks – a rate of 32%. Yet, the NYT reported civilians killed in only two of those 26 attacks – a rate of 7.7%.
The 26 WP articles covered 26 separate attacks. TBIJ found that civilians were killed in seven of the 26 attacks – a rate of 27%. The WP, however, reported civilians killed in only one of those seven attacks – a rate of 14%.
According to BIJ, in the 33 strikes that resulted in civilian casualties, a total of 180 to 302 civilians were killed. In the three NYT and WP articles that reported civilian casualties, the deaths of just nine civilians were documented.
"This trend of underreporting of civilian casualties means readers are not being informed of the real consequences of drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan," Bachman writes. "It represents a failure by journalists at these papers to view critically government claims regarding who is killed in particular strikes."
The study also found that the NYT and WP hardly ever framed the drone strikes in an international legal context.
In the 81 NYT articles, human rights were mentioned five times – a rate of 6%. In the 26 WP articles, human rights were mentioned once – a rate of 3.8%.
"The Obama administration's lack of transparency and dismal reporting by the nation's top newspapers combine to protect the administration from accountability for the civilians killed during its drone strikes," Bachman writes.