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Public editor: Crowd estimate depends on your point of view

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is greeted by enthusiastic fans at Ford Fest, held in Thomson Memorial Park in Scarborough, July 25, 2014.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

So, just how many people were at two recent events in the country? The short answer is, it depends on a rough estimate and who is doing the estimate.

One reader was annoyed that a story on a poll mentioning Ford Fest said hundreds of people showed up to get free food and shake hands with the Toronto mayor.

The story of the event itself said thousands showed up.

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Which was true? Well, because you cannot really count a moving crowd of people, especially in a public park, the estimate was in the eyes of the reporter.

"You'd have to be a moron to not acknowledge that there were thousands there. Thousands is more than a few hundred," the reader said. "I actually walked there just to see how many would turn out for this event. I was shocked. … Sad to see biased journalism in today's world. Thanks to social media, like YouTube in this case, I and others can see who is telling the truth and who is fabricating facts."

Here is the link to the YouTube video of Ford Fest.

I was not at the event, but if you look at the video, there could be either hundreds, as a conservative estimate, or thousands, as a more generous one. One obvious example: 1,999 is hundreds and 2,000 is thousands.

It is not a question of "fabricating," as the reader suggests, but trying to give your best guess. Some people are good at counting numbers of people in a grid and then extrapolating that to the larger size crowd. If you try that, you will often find a smaller number than your initial estimate.

In Monday's B.C. edition of the newspaper, a caption on a photograph of the Vancouver Pride parade included an estimate for what the crowd was expected to be. A reader wrote to say that "I was surprised to see the paper printed a crowd expectation number rather than an exact or official count of the number of people watching the parade."

The reader wondered why the reporter didn't just ask the Vancouver Pride office.

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In this case, as in the case of Ford Fest, an exact number is impossible. Estimates from event organizers are invariably, and not unexpectedly, generous while others may have an interest in playing down the number.

I think the first question is, do you really need an estimate of the crowd size? If so, it is better to ask the police for their best estimate and attribute that number to them.

If you have a concern about something you read, please e-mail me at publiceditor@globeandmail.com

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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