Did Stewart and Colbert measure up to Glenn Beck?
Monday UPDATE: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert grossly underestimated the likely attendance at their rally on Saturday. Although the permit for the rally anticipated a crowd of 60,000, the best estimates put actual attendance in the neighborhood of 200,000, compared to the 90,000 or so believed to have attended Glenn Beck's rally in late August.
Once again, the National Park Service demurred on providing a head count, leaving that chore up to the new de facto crowd counter: CBS News and a company called AirPhotosLive.com, which based its estimate on aerial photos of the event.
It's unclear why Stewart/Colbert put in for such a low number. Maybe they wanted to downplay expectations. Or maybe they just didn't want to spring for more Porta-Potties. Either way, I would never plan a wedding with them.
ORIGINAL POST: In the post-mortem that will surely follow Saturday's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, there is certainly going to be discussion about how many people turned out -- in the name of truthiness, of course.
Counting heads on the National Mall is hard work. So hard and controversial, that the National Park Service refuses to do it anymore.
The final tally of attendees at Glenn Beck's rally in August ranged from 80,000 to 500,000, depending on who was doing the figuring -- or outright lying.
Jon Stewart doesn't expect to draw anywhere close to those numbers. The permit application Comedy Central filed to stage this event anticipates a crowd of 60,000. A good chunk of that group -- about 10,000 -- are to arrive via the Huffpo Shuttle, a fleet of 200 buses that Huffington Post publisher Ariana Huffington is paying for, which would put about 10,000 people at the rally.
The U.S. Park Police in the past 14 years has provided crowd estimates only once -- for the inauguration of Barack Obama last year. (National Park Service officials said they wanted to know whether it broke the previous record set by the 1965 swearing-in of Lyndon B. Johnson.) In 1996, Congress forced the Park Police to stop estimating crowd sizes after organizers of the Million Man March threatened to sue the agency for saying that 400,000 people had attended the 1995 event, a far smaller turnout than the organizers' own million-plus claim.
''It just got to be so controversial. We get a bunch of people who call us names and say we lie about how many people were there. We decided it serves no benefit for us . . . it is not in our own best interest'' to make a count, then-Park Police spokesman Maj. Robert H. Hines told the Richmond Times Dispatch at the time.
Last year, controversy erupted over the size of a Tea Party rally on the Mall. Supporters of the rally threw out numbers as high as 2 million; an unofficial estimate by local authorities ran closer to 70,000. To back up their estimate, Tea Party-friendly bloggers posted an aerial photo of a packed National Mall. The only trouble was that the picture had been taken years earlier -- before the 2004 construction of the National Museum of the American Indian, which is missing from the photo.
Since the inauguration, the Park Police have gone back into retirement from the crowd counting business, as the outgoing voice mail message of Park Service spokesman David Schlosser made clear prior to the Beck event: "We do not provide crowd estimates. Any you may hear may not be attributed to the Park Police or the National Park Service."
Crowd estimating is an inexact science that dates back to the 1960s, according to Steve Doig, a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. It originated with journalism professor Herbert Jacobs. From his office at the University of California at Berkeley, Jacobs had a clear view of the plaza below where protestors liked to gather during the Vietnam War. Using the plaza as a laboratory of sorts, he came up with a loose methodology that boils down to how many people you can squeeze into a square foot of space. In packed situations, a person might occupy 2.5 square feet of space. In less congested situations, a person might occupy 10 square feet of space. Looking at aerial photographs, measuring the square footage covered by people, and how dense the crowd is, can yield a rough estimate. Depending on density, a crowded National Mall can hold between 1.5 million and 3 million people.
How important is it to you to get an accurate crowd estimate? Does the number attached to a demonstration lend the event credibility even more than the message might? What methods do you think journalists should use to report crowd estimates? Is it inevitable that the organizers' claim will be dramatically larger than estimates by neutral sources? Come ahead with your thoughts on the comment board below, and if you dare, include your prediction/estimate of the crowd at the Colbert-Stewart performance.
(Editor's note: It's much easier to count crowds at a march than at a speech or demonstration because a team of reporters can position themselves at a single funnel point along a march and literally hand-count the crowd. Counting a sprawling mass of people, such as below the Lincoln Memorial, is harder and there are generally two primary ways to do it: 1) Use aerial photos and divide the area into grids. 2) Station people at key points and walk through the crowd doing a hand-count. Neither is fool-proof, but both can give good estimates.--Marc Fisher)
Portions of this post appeared in an Aug. 30 post about the crowd at the Beck rally.
| November 1, 2010; 2:24 PM ET
Categories: Journalism , More on the story, The inside story
Save & Share: Previous: Pot in D.C.: A reporter makes stuff up
Next: Pick of the day: The ballad of Jay and Conan
Posted by: blasmaic | October 30, 2010 8:55 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: loricerny | October 30, 2010 9:49 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: mjp88 | October 30, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: allons | October 30, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: jeff20 | October 30, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: dkoonce1 | October 30, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: AspenFreePress | October 30, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: newagent99 | October 30, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: j762 | October 30, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Regavra | October 30, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: EricB2 | October 30, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: ARAinVA | October 30, 2010 8:16 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Sanya2135 | October 30, 2010 9:06 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: edallan | October 31, 2010 12:27 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: tomhill1 | October 31, 2010 1:07 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Krista_L | October 31, 2010 2:37 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: JackAcidSocietyMember | October 31, 2010 5:22 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: LouFr | October 31, 2010 5:57 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: TomfromNJ1 | October 31, 2010 6:11 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: JackAcidSocietyMember | October 31, 2010 6:12 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: ecartr5 | October 31, 2010 8:14 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: wsa3210 | October 31, 2010 8:49 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: wsa3210 | October 31, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: scoogy | October 31, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: theduck6 | October 31, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: judithclaire1939 | October 31, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: privacy5 | October 31, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: LouFr | October 31, 2010 9:48 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: rww549 | November 1, 2010 2:09 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: rww549 | November 1, 2010 2:13 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: EAHarrison | November 1, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: swatter | November 1, 2010 11:49 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.