How many people were there?

Glenn Beck says there were 500,000 people at his rally last weekend. CBS, which hired a company to take photos of the crowd and came up with an estimate, reported far fewer: 78,000 to 96,000.

Is it important?

Well, sure. There’s a big difference between half a million and 96,000. It tells us something about the Fox News commentator’s ability to draw a crowd.

What so often happens, though, is journalists give up on trying to provide an estimate of crowd size. Sometimes, we rely on police who are as apt to be wrong as anyone else when it comes to crowd estimates. Number of tickets sold can be a good guide.

If you’re in a measurable space, go for it. Try multiplying rows by columns and looking for “standing room only” overflow. In an unseated crowd, you can do an eye measurement by group of people if you have a clear vantage point on the whole crowd.

But don’t give up. Your editor will ask you because the reader wants to know: How many people were there?

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12 Responses to How many people were there?

  1. amrita88 says:

    That’s one aspect of reporting I hadn’t considered–the science of getting crowd numbers right!
    There was one interesting line that stood out from the article: “Without official estimates, any numbers published by reputable news organizations — like the 300,000 estimate — quickly got picked up and repeated enough to almost become fact.”

    I guess that reinforces what we discussed in class-one of the top errors in reporting is always the numbers.

  2. EmokeBebiak says:

    Ah, numbers… I think every journalists cringes when we have to deal with them (the GREs actually made me realize I can’t add or subtract numbers above 100… I know, it’s sad). But the point is we need to be able to handle numbers and estimates.

    Political rallies are actually very problematic when it comes to the size of the crowd, because they are all about numbers: at the end of the day, the number of supporters matters the most. It can be any type of rally, as long as it gets enough supporters, it will be in the news.

    So I think it’s important that journalists go there prepared with some sort of estimate strategy. Soon enough, we should have the technology at hand to help us. I bet satellites could be used to estimate crowds (hey, if Google can take a picture of my backyard, so that I can see the little pathway leading to my entrance door, they must be able to take detailed pictures of crowds!)

    One tip I’ve found useful when covering speeches where people are seated in an auditorium: always sit in the middle so you can see everyone around you and can get a good feel for the number of people. Sitting in the front or back rows can be deceiving!

    • tonyflesor says:

      This got me thinking. Google can tell you how many people are in a crowd (sort of). You can draw lines on Google Maps – so if you have the time and the desire to actually try it, you could draw the outline of the event on a map and Google will tell you how long the lines are. Pull out your 7th grade geometry book and figure out the area. Estimate how much personal space you have – 2-feet, 3-feet, 10-feet… And then whip out your calculator.

      Okay, so it’s more like a math problem than journalism but it might work?

  3. Dustin says:

    I attended Lollapalooza a few weeks ago in Chicago. Estimations of crowd size for Green Day’s headliner Saturday night was around 70,000. The photos of Beck’s crowd look closer to the 96 than the 500. One of my undergrad professors told us about the columns/rows theory, and it has really been useful when I’ve needed it.

  4. Sean Leahy says:

    Sporting events can get tricky when it comes to attendance. Some places announce the total tickets sold as the attendance, but there can be a clear difference between that and the number of people who actually showed up.

    Knowing an arena’s capacity and eyeballing the crowd can give you at least an inkling of the number of people there.

  5. This is such a good reminder to accuracy check ALL the facts, and it shows how we, as journalists, can err in our observations. We don’t have perfect ability to judge everything accurately with our eyes simply because we are reporters, and we need to be extremely diligent about checking, double-checking, and triple-checking what we see. I’m always wary of relying too much on observation, and the extra effort it takes to make sure everything is as accurate as possible is definitely worth it in the long run.

    Another numerical aspect that I also find interesting is what type of crowd gathered. When covering speeches or convocations as an undergrad, for example, I would look and see how many students attended, as well as how many faculty/staff attended. (That being said, I also went to a school of only 1500 students, and far from all of them went to such events.) The numerical make-up of different parts of a crowd can sometimes provide a different insight on a story that the sheer number as a whole cannot.

  6. I agree, “there is a big difference between half a million and 96,000.” At a political rally numbers are especially important. 500,000 people makes Glenn Beck’s political agenda appear valid and encourages his followers believe they have some kind of majority.

    Whereas the more accurate number of 78,000 or 96,000 leads the viewer and possibly his followers to see the Glenn Beck group as a “fringe” or minority.

    Some of the media did exactly what Glenn Beck wanted, which was to convince people that his “movement” is strong and wide reaching, when in reality it is not.

  7. amrita88 says:

    this is totally unrelated, but I found an interesting article about a new trend in broadcast news on the NYT website:

  8. I think this is relevant to our discussion. This is an article that Charles Davis, my Communication Law professor posted for our class.

    It looks like for now comments made on social media are a big deal!

  9. sydneyaberry says:

    I once heard that if you pick a group of people and count the number of people in that group, then see how many of those groups there are all together, it can be useful.

    I’ve found that this works much better in smaller rather than larger groups. For instance, in a football stadium, that would not work at all. But in an auditorium or gathering, it’s definitely a great way to do it.

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