Estimating crowd counts at controversial events is a perennial challenge for journalists.

By Kathy English for the Toronto Star

Canada’s new National Newsmedia Council has dismissed – with reservation – a complaint about the Toronto Star’s March report of the Ford family event held at the Toronto Congress Centre to celebrate the life of Toronto mayor Rob Ford.

The complaint concerned a question of the accuracy of the size of the crowd reported in the Star’s article “Hundreds celebrate legacy of ex-mayor.” In that article, David Rider, the Star’s city hall bureau chief, wrote that Doug Ford told “several hundred people” that the Ford family would carry on with the work of Rob Ford.

The complainant, Doug Dixon of Toronto, subsequently told the Star – and the NNC – that he believed the crowd count of “three thousand or more” as stated by “one of your competitors” (the Toronto Sun) was more accurate and in line with his experience of attending the evening event.

Dixon sought a correction from the Star. I told him the Star could not publish a correction based on the numbers published by another news organization. We told him (and the NNC) that, as the story indicated, the number reported in the Star reflected the reporter’s observations and estimation, based on his experience covering public events, of the size of the crowd during the time Ford was speaking. It was not an overall crowd count of the entire evening.

“Of course, all direct observation is subjective and it behooves reporters to strive for the utmost fairness in reporting their own observations,” I told Dixon, adding that I had considerable confidence in Rider’s experience, credibility and record of fairness, as do his editors.

Indeed, I told him, this reporter had “no reason not to report accurately and fairly what he observed.”

I also made clear that the question of crowd counts is a perennial challenge for journalists. As I have written before, crowd counts in news reports are often not exact, nor stated with exactness. The estimated size of any crowd reported by most any news organization is likely always open for debate.