Crowd Counts and You

There’s been a fair amount of grumbling from the right about how the media somehow under-counted crowds at yesterday’s tea party events.

Chase Martyn at Iowa Independent counted 700 at the Statehouse. The Register reported 1,000 at one point, and later 3,000.

Martyn explains his own methodology:

At about 12:30 p.m., when the protest was in full swing and the crowd was clustered near the stage, I walked up the steps of the capitol and took an approximate head-count. First, I counted the farthest-away row of protesters, who were facing the stage (and me, since I was standing behind the stage). Then, I counted the closest row of protesters, who were standing right in front of the stage. Then I approximated the number of rows of protesters between the first and last row. Once that was finished, I averaged the number of people in the first and last rows and multiplied by the number of rows I counted.

Based on my own experience, trying to count a crowd at political events is a no-win endeavor. No matter what, someone thinks you’re wrong. 

The one hard and fast rule is that event organizers are the last people you ever want to ask for a crowd count. Ask a campaign staffer for a crowd count at a candidate rally, and you can be assured of hearing a vastly overestimated whopper. If you divide their estimates in half, you might be in the ballpark.

(It’s like the August 2007 Iowa GOP Straw Poll. Organizers kept telling us ahead of time that 30,000 people would show up. In reality, only about 14,300 votes were cast in the poll.)

Often, one of the first things I would do is find an AP reporter to see what count they planned to use. Because if my number was different than AP’s number, then my editors back home would get confused. And a confused editor is very dangerous.

In most cases, though, it comes down to experience. For example, if you’ve seen a lot of rallies on the Statehouse steps, you know the difference between big ones (thousands) and smaller ones (200 people.)

But, in the end, it’s a crap shoot. I can’t count how many times I settled on a number in good faith only to see another reporter cite half or double that amount.

I always tried to give an honest estimate. The idea that reporters are out there trying to downplay a story they’re covering makes no sense to me. If anything, I had to fight the impulse is to make my event seem like a bigger deal than it really was.

But that’s old school, back in the day when scribes cared about being published on what they called a “front page.”

You can ask your grandad about it.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Crowd Counts and You

  1. Usually I count rows of chairs and multiply, but the Iowa City tea party was on a bridge and thus was two realllllly long rows. I guesstimated 300 people; the organizers said 400.

    Back at caucus time, the John Edwards campaign counted their sign-in sheets. Mark McCullough, who I nicknamed “the ever efficient Mark McCullough,” would work press row late in the speech to circulate a very precise number: “Hey, Deeth, we had 642 sign-ins.”

  2. Dan

    No comment on subject content , speaks volumes.

  3. tdorman

    Yeah, Dan, you got me. I’m part of a vast liberal conspiracy of silence. Couldn’t be that I just wrote about something I know about and was interested in.

  4. Todd, if it makes you feel better I dont think you are part of the vast lefty conspiracy. With that said the following line from your article deserves some discussion: “The idea that reporters are out there trying to downplay a story they’re covering makes no sense to me. ”

    Excellent point. It really doesnt make sense at all. The problem is that it IS happening and not just small boring new agencies but CNN and MSNBC. In fact nearly every large news outlet covered the Tea Party story incorrectly from a complete lack of journalistic integrity (CNN) to injecting to much support (FOX). MSNBC was in the middle there with the likes of the idiot Keith Olbermann and his worthless self absorbed drivel.

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