From the weekend: doing crowd estimates

No matter what beat you’re on this semester, you’re likely to be asked this question by an editor after you’ve covered an event: How many people were there?

If you don’t have an answer, you’ll have to make phone calls and rely on other people’s estimates. That’s not an ideal situation because organizers sometimes exaggerate how many people attended an event because it makes a cause or festival or sport look more popular than it actually is. The National Park Service used to do crowd estimates until their estimates because so controversial, they got sued.

Here’s how to do a crowd estimate at an event where there’s seating:

  1. Arrive early enough to count the numbers of rows, and the number of seats in a row, in the auditorium or room.
  2. Ask organizers how many tickets have been sold, if the event required a ticket (often, organizers won’t tell you because — see above).
  3. If the room/auditorium isn’t full, do the best you can to count the seated people and then scan the space for people who are standing in the back of the room.
  4. If the room/auditorium is full, multiply the rows by the columns + scan for standing people, others seated in the aisles (sometimes happens).
  5. If there are no seats in the venue, say on the dance floor at the Blue Note, get a higher vantage point (a balcony is good) and turn the area where people are crowded into a visual grid. That is, attempt to divide the space below you as if you were looking at squares of graph paper. Count the people in one imaginary square and then multiply it by the number of squares you are able to see. Then count the other spaces and estimate the total.

The word ESTIMATE is crucial here because when that’s all you can do, you should be transparent with the reader. The controversy this past weekend with the inauguration versus Women’s March crowd counts was that people were on the move a lot. But no one could reasonably argue in the side-by-side comparisons of the crowds on the Mall that there weren’t far more people assembled for the March.

And so the “alternative truth” about the inauguration crowd was, in fact, just a lie. It’s not just okay to say that; it’s important to be plain about it.

The Washington Post offered this great piece on the history and science of crowd estimates that I hope you’ll read for more guidance. Also, if you follow me on Twitter at #aboutreporting (you’re supposed to do that), I tweeted links to some other valuable pieces on this subject.

P.S. I just posted the lecture schedule, if you want to download it for reference.

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