Monday, September 14, 2009

Down for the Count

This isn't a political post. It's a post about journalistic integrity.

You may have heard about the protest at the U.S. Capitol this weekend. Or not, depending on your news source. Here, the New York Times estimates the size of the crowd as 30,000. And here the Columbia Independent Examiner estimates the crowd size as 2,000,000.

I don't know about you, but one of the things I learned, even as an English major, was how to count. And although I realize that the tiny, dispirited band/massive hordes didn't pass through any turnstyles, and that there wasn't any kind of official tally, it still seems to me that journalistic honesty demands something better than a range of 30,000 to 2,000,000. One estimate is almost 70 times greater than the other. And when I count, I typically don't go 70, 140, 210. Conversely, when I see 70 people, I don't call them a single person.

I have no idea which, if either, of the estimates is correct. But there is something seriously wrong with journalism in America when that kind of discrepancy can exist among news reports. I'd simply like to know the truth. Here's a good first step for all the pundits and talking heads. Counting goes like this: 1, 2, 3.


cnb said...

Having never tried to estimate a crowd size from aerial observation, I don't know how difficult it is to do accurately. I have the impression that it is more of an art -- even a dark art -- than a science, and there is plenty of room for prejudices to swing the number one way or the other. But I agree with you that at least one of these "estimates" is ridiculous. Those responsible should read up on Fermi problems.

Several years ago, when visiting Boulder, CO, I made an informal poll of fellow travellers on the public transit system, asking them (out of genuine interest) the population of their city. The answers I received ranged from "50,000" to "about a million". Some people just aren't good with numbers.

Brother-in-law Bill said...

I've noticed that even some of the so-called fact checkers in the media tend to do pretty sloppy jobs, focusing on the literal fact rather than getting below the surface and dealing with the real issues being raised. I don't know if it's incompetence, bias, or the perception that we all have attention spans too short for serious journalism. Maybe all three and more.

Caleb Land said...

To be honest I didn't get what the conflict was with the two reports. The NYT report simply estimated before the rally that there would be about 30,000 people. The Second article reported that the turnout far exceeded expectations and estimated the turnout from 20-70,000 to 2 million. They expressed the opinion that aerial shots support a higher attendance, but never made an official estimate. The pictures sure seem like more than 20-70,000 to me.

Unknown said...

in the for-what-it's-worth dept., the National Park Service - who sort of manage the Mall in DC, really do count people. I think they send someone up in Wash monument and they can estimate based on sections, i.e. they know a section hold so many people. Then they can estimate visually how many of those sections are full. I may not be using the right words but they can provide a "quasi-official" count.