This year the L.A. Times didn't fall back into the trap of reporting the old canard that a million spectators watched the Rose Parade. But the editor in charge of local news says even the "more than 700,000" figure the LAT claimed never should have gotten in the paper. From David Lauter's memo:
There are things in the journalism business which we get so consistently wrong that one begins to wonder whether we labor under some error-dooming curse. Consider the endlessly repeated problem of unreliable crowd counts....
The unreliability of the Rose Parade crowd count has become a legend of its own. For years, Pasadena officials used to annually repeat a crowd count of one million. In the 1980s, a gentleman named Christopher Lee used to write Letters to the Editor taking us to task for repeating that count. In that same era, a reporter from the Pasadena Star News worked with the late Al Hibbs of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to estimate the maximum possible crowd along the parade route: 512,000 Hibbs reported, "giving every benefit of the doubt to the upper number." In 1991, our former colleague Jesse Katz wrote a page-one story on the folly of crowd counts. Jesse's story even included a handy formula for calculating a maximum-possible crowd size for parades (it works out to about 130,000 people per mile of parade route if they're all standing up, packed tight as sardines the whole way with no room for coolers, chairs or empty spots at the back).
For a time, all that attention gets results. In 1997, our Rose Parade story (by Frank Clifford) quoted a police spokesperson as estimating that "hundreds of thousands of people" lined the parade route and noted that "parade officials said they abandoned crowd counts after previous attendance figures were criticized as too high." That was the right solution. But memory is fallible, newspaper staffs come and go, and error creeps back in.
So, please, in this new year, let's resolve to do better: Let's not use numbers that are simply someone's guess....What we give up in fake precision, we'll gain in actual accuracy.
In 1980, Times science reporter Robert Gillette reported on the skepticism that any more than 500,000 could possibly line the route and tipped his hat to stories in the Pasadena Star-News dating back two decades. Last quip, though, went to the Pasadena police spokesman, noting the 40 tons of trash left behind: "If this mess isn't left by a million people, then those who do attend should be ashamed of themselves."
* But first: Patt Morrison posted at Opinion L.A. on the same subject — with the same quote! — back on Jan. 1.