'Chron' Is on Top of Crowd Counts

By Berman, Ari | Editor & Publisher, March 3, 2003 | Go to article overview

'Chron' Is on Top of Crowd Counts


Berman, Ari, Editor & Publisher


San Francisco daily takes to the air to assess antiwar-rally turnout

When it comes to technology, the Bay Area almost always stays a step ahead of the game. But even after the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that it had used aerial photography to count crowd size -- always a controversial subject -- at a Feb. 16 antiwar rally, it appears that aerial reconnaissance isn't likely to become common any time soon, with budgets as tight as they are.

But one paper considering flyovers of major demonstrations is The Washington Post. And, as Byron E. Calame, deputy managing editor at The Wall Street Journal, observed with a chuckle, "If you can prove police and organizers wrong, that's a pretty good find."

Most newspapers have long relied on police and organizer guesstimates. Usually, the organizers inflate the number while police deflate it. But who can say who's right? Such an imperfect system convinced the Chronicle staff to try something new, especially with the likelihood of more marches in the offing.

Responding to a reader's suggestion, the Chronicle hired a company specializing in taking photos for topographical maps. The Chronicle's results, which placed the Feb. 16 rally tally at 65,000 people, far lower than police and organizer estimates that ranged from 200,000 to 250,000, surprised nearly everyone, Chronicle staffers included. "I actually thought the number would be much higher," Managing Editor Robert J. Rosenthal told E&P. "We knew we'd be criticized no matter what, and felt helpless without our own measure. This is a very hot political issue, and we needed to provide accuracy."

Rosenthal said the experiment provided a good yardstick for the future, even though it came with a $4,000 price tag. Wildly divergent police and organizer estimates hamper coverage of demonstrations, he said. …

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