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“I have a jar of jellybeans on my desk…”

Andrew Alexander, Washington Post ombudsman, has an insightful post about covering crowd estimates at large rallies:

Crowd counts, inexact and exploitable, are a no-win problem for the media. Event organizers tout their own estimates to promote their cause. If a news organization’s estimate is lower, it gets accused of bias. If it’s seen as too high, the charge is favoritism.

 But while the Post avoided making its own estimates, it prompted users to do so in a user poll. Sure, no one takes those things seriously anyway, but put a little effort into it, will ya Washington Post?

Unscientific user polls, more entertaining than enlightening, are intended to engage online readers. But some found this one silly because it encouraged participation by those who had no clue of how to estimate crowd size and may not have even attended the rally. Ann Chih Lin, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy, objected: “It’s akin to sending out a message on the Internet saying, ‘I have a jar of jellybeans on my desk. You don’t know the size of the jar or the size of the jellybeans. Guess how many are in the jar.'”