Crowd Sourcing

Should reporters bother estimating crowd size at rallies?

At the beginning of his “Restoring Honor” rally in D.C. last weekend, Fox News’s Glenn Beck joked, “I have just gotten word from the media that there is over 1,000 people here today.”

In reality, “the media”—whoever that broad label encompasses—did not settle on a figure at all. Fox News claimed over 500,000 people showed up, while CBS, enlisting the help of aerial number-counters, estimated the crowd at 87,000. Others did not count at all. Noting that NBC called the crowd at 300,000, the Times settled on “a large turnout.” The Journal offered no figures at all, saying The National Park Service no longer provided crowd estimates. It did however note that the gathering “appeared to be one of the largest rallies of recent years in the nation’s capital.”

If we can’t be accurate, do we then be vague?

It’s important to know the size of a crowd. Not only are people curious, size gives a general sense of an event’s importance. However, if we cannot be sure of crowd size, if estimations range across hundreds of thousands, and if there is no standard, consistent, across-the-board measure, what value does a estimation provide? Should journalists continue to provide numerical crowd estimates when reporting on events like these? Why or why not?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.