Police claimed that only 30,000 marched the recent “anti-war” rally at the Capitol, organizers claimed at least 200,000 protested, and some activists — veterans of mass demonstrations — claimed as many as 500,000. A lot happens in a typical protest, rally or march: a diverse group of people convenes for a variety of reasons with a variety of qualifications and caveats. Yet the space in our minds and our media is limited, and in the end an event is usually reduced to “X number of people protested against Y.” The question is not which number is correct, but which number will become history.

The simplification of a position is understandable (if sadly reductionist) — all have a desire to organize people into a spectrum with clearly defined markers and names, be it politics, race, or gender (Note: I will refer to movements by their common names — i.e., “anti-globalization” — only because this is how they are recognized). But I’m more interested in that X, for the number presented by journalists and remembered decades after truly is an unknown. While the politics of crowd estimation may see trivial, it can be crucial in the success or failure of a social movement.

An event like last week’s “anti-war” protest in Washington, D.C., is a case in point. People trekked to the capital for thousands of different reasons, but the central one was to actually effect change, to “make their voices heard,” to stop the war. But politicians rarely show at such events and have well-insulated windows, so President Bush didn’t hear a thing. The amount of airtime and the font size in your local paper’s headline is dependent not on the quality of arguments presented — “X people protested against Y (and behaved like Z).” For the targets of the event — potentates and Americans undecided about the issue at hand — X is all that really matters. Yet, as many activists and politicians will attest, X rarely has much to do with reality. Why?

Let’s look at how X is decided.

The turning point in crowd estimation was the Million Man March of October 1995. Until this point, the National Park Service relied on Park Police estimates, which were based on enlarged photographs, videotapes from a helicopter, amount of buses bringing people in, and traffic patterns. The Park Police claimed 400,000 for the event while organizers claimed 1.5-2 million and threatened to sue the Park Service. After a source like the Associated Press chooses a number, other papers can easily and guiltlessly reprint it. A fact is born! Boston University professor Farouk El-Baz used satellite pictures to place the number at approximately 900,000 and squash the controversy.

Smokey Bear has since declined to provide crowd estimates, and satellites are rarely used. With a lack of an objective source, the media must choose between the police’s low-balling and activists’ frequent inflation of their numbers. (Many activists adhere to a policy of strict accuracy in an attempt to establish their credibility, while a minority maintains that inflation is necessary to combat vast underestimates.) The police consistently underestimate crowds, whether the event is an “anti-globalization” action or a “pro-life” rally; the ready explanation is since cops are responsible for the safety and control of the streets, lower numbers give them the upper hand — “Nah, don’t worry, it’s only X minus 10,000. Nothin’ to see here.”

So it’s journalists who really hold the chips here. The media consistently underreports the amount of people present at public events, especially “left-wing” actions. While conservatives have pounded the term “liberal media” into every American’s head, most writers make an honest attempt to be objective. Some of the mechanisms by which they inadvertently cripple social movements are explained enumerated by professor Noam Chomsky in “Manufacturing Consent”:

(1) Reliability and availability: Police departments (along with city hall and large corporations) are reliable sources of information for beat reporters. Instead of seeking out unknown dissident groups for information that may in fact be more accurate (the police are not trained to estimate crowd size), reporters pressed by deadlines can more easily accept press releases and disinformation provided by “official” and “expert” sources. (2) Cost of establishing credentials: The opinions of “official” sources (i.e. the police) will be accepted without question by consumers, while referring instead to an activist group (such as International A.N.S.W.E.R.) would require a journalist to establish the group’s credentials. (3) The media’s reliance on sources: Beat reporters work by establishing personal relationships with their sources. Powerful groups that control the flow of information can use threats and rewards to coerce the media into carrying its perspective and even suppressing that of others — reporters looking for a scoop will find the going tough if they criticize their regular sources. (4) Advertising: Large corporations subsidize the media through advertising, and large corporations can (even if tacitly) threaten the media to support them positively or negatively.

If newspapers were to shoot for accuracy over expedience, there is the power of the “flak network”: Individuals and groups with substantial resources have the means to punish the media (ultimately a business) in a variety of ways for stories and assertions they oppose. On the other hand, activist groups generally have few resources. For example, after nearly 675 people participated in a civil disobedience last October, garnering nationwide press, the story was relegated to the New Haven Register’s third page after its “publisher actually ordered editors to keep negative labor stories about Yale off the front page.” The reason? Not only is Yale the Register’s greatest (regular) source of news, but it “showered the paper with $100,000 or more worth of full-page color, community service ads” in 2002 (Advocate, 12/26/02). After reading Chomsky’s “propaganda model,” does this sound less like a conspiracy theory and more than business as usual?

Back to crowd estimation. Did 10 or 10,000 participate in a Venezuelan labor strike, a Cinco de Mayo celebration, or a union rally around the corner? Journalists will forever rely on inaccurate numbers to describe public events, if only because the lede “A whole lotta people showed up this afternoon –” just doesn’t cut it. So what’s a discerning consumer to do? Don’t believe the lack of hype — consult mainstream media and activist press for an accurate picture, as the answer is somewhere between the two. At the very least, assume that the numbers are much greater than has been reported in your local paper or periodical.

Matthew Schneider-Mayerson is a junior in Davenport College. His column appears regularly on alternate Tuesdays.