• In 2008, Jane Kim wrote here at CJR about the Obama campaign’s tendency to provide crowd counts along with validators of those counts, noting that sometimes those validators weren’t necessarily the best judges. The short version: “Let’s use caution in employing unverifiable numbers in the service of colorful crowd descriptions.”
• In 2009, Steve Doig, a data journalist and journalism professor at the Cronkite School at Arizona State University, wrote about crowd counts ahead of the Obama inauguration. He spelled out a mathematical method and also suggested photos as ways to help estimate massive crowds.
• In 2010, the editors here at CJR asked, uh, the crowd about whether journalists should even try to do crowd counts, with a post noting that the National Park Service no longer gave crowd estimates for protests in Washington, DC. One tongue-in-cheek comment, from James Lynch: “An AP reporter on the presidential campaign trail told me once to get an accurate crowd estimate ask the organizer, divide that number by 2 and subtract a third.”
• In 2011, on the World blog for what was then MSNBC and is now NBC News, journalist Alex Johnson examined the difficulty of measuring crowds in Tahrir Square, where estimates ranged from 100,000 to 2 million, and he referred readers to Doig’s post. The best part about this post: It wasn’t just aimed at journalists but also at the readers of news at MSNBC’s site.
Crowd estimates do matter. For one thing, growing crowds set a narrative of increased interest and support for campaigns or causes, and organizers often cite the crowd numbers used by media as proof of that squishy term, “momentum.” That can translate into donations, so the motivation for potential money can encourage organizers to spin numbers ever higher. Being as accurate as possible when making crowd estimates, then, matters because the numbers can produce effects. So the watchwords are care and caution.
For example: take reports from protests in May in Charlotte during the Bank of America’s annual shareholders meeting. Initial reports by media sympathetic to protesters estimated “thousands” protesting. The Charlotte Observer appropriately exercised caution and said 500 to 750 people protested, in a story that gave the police estimate (400 or 500) and the organizers’ own estimate after the event was over (750).
For the Romney and Ryan visit to Mooresville on Sunday, the Statesville Record & Landmark took a smart approach amid a dearth of immediately available official crowd estimates. Reporter Jim McNally interviewed a USA Today reporter, Jackie Kucinich who had been traveling with the Romney campaign to get some context on the crowd. (The reporter, by the way, is the daughter of Dennis Kucinich, a Democratic US congressman from Ohio.) McNally quoted Kucinich: “I’m not good at estimating crowds but this and all the people outside, this looks like the biggest one I’ve seen,” she said. “The crowds were maybe 1,000 to 1,500 people most of the time but yesterday [Saturday] they were bigger, and this is certainly bigger.”
While there’s some danger in reporters interviewing reporters, in this context, way down in the story as a method of trying to nail down the relative size of the crowd, the technique worked nicely. Providing context, being open about how difficult crowd estimates can be, and finding “validators” or knowledgeable sources for the numbers, are sound principles for journalists as the crowds gather this fall.
Clarification: The News & Observer’s use of the high GOP crowd-size estimate in High Point was added to this story after it was initially published. Also, the two paragraphs starting with “The high end of crowd estimates” were also added shortly after this story was initially published.