[Warren Report #256-2019B ]
The Boston Globe ran a second article featuring Sen. Elizabeth Warren in this issue on page A8, covering Warren’s “town hall” rally in Austin, TX on Tuesday. It’s opening paragraphs gave a very favorable impression of Warren, suggesting that the event was extremely well attended, with the “crowd packed elbow-to-elbow and jammed into rows….”
The reporter then stated as fact that the crowd exceeded 5,000 people: “It’s a scene that the Massachusetts senator has grown accustomed to this summer: a sea of people like the more than 5,000 at this event Tuesday night.”
I don’t know if the reporter was physically there. The report is written that way, but my efforts to confirm it went unanswered. One of my questions was whether this “more than 5,000” figure was the reporter’s own observation, somehow confirmed by count or estimate, or was she repeating a figure given to her by someone else, and if so, who?
Because that matters. If the Warren campaign estimated “more than 5,000,” I think a reasonable person might assume they are exaggerating. And that is why such a source for this fact must be plainly stated. Readers will know (or should know) that audience sizes are a barometer for popularity and that the campaign is going to possibly inflate the turnout numbers to make them look stronger. I don’t say this as a direct criticism of Warren’s staff, but as a reason for an independent journalist to be precise about the source for the number.
I wrote to the reporter and did so a second time, copying upper Globe management, and received no response, so I am forced to speculate. And my guess is that the reporter used the crowd size as estimated by the Warren campaign and failed to disclose it to readers. And I have some evidence that it is inflated.
What first made me curious was that there was no photo of the crowd. There were many close shots of the Senator and small groups, but nothing very wide. So I went online to read other news stories of the event and look for photos and descriptions of the crowd size. That’s when I found the “more than 5,000” audience reported by other media, which was clearly attributed to the Warren campaign staff. (One paper did so in the body of their article, not their headline.) So other media properly reported the crowd size as 5,000 as estimated by the Warren campaign. This reinforces my point that this is a standard journalistic practice. Why wasn’t it followed by the Globe?
Additional search links pointed to TV station coverage. And that’s when I found KVUE (the local ABC affiliate). This station had a video of the event, with a wide angle, sweeping shot of the crowd as Warren spoke. The link to that video and story is here: https://www.kvue.com/article/news/politics/elizabeth-warren-to-host-town-hall-in-austin/269-2b10ac8c-36ee-4828-86b1-e6e517953e74
I stopped the video a couple of times and took screen shots of the crowd. It was very large, I’d say easily over 1,000 people. Using a couple of different and fairly imprecise methods, I estimated the crowd at 1,600. If I’m wrong by half, it could be 3,200. Since the video was from the back, it is hard to count the far sides. The crowd directly in front of Warren looked like several hundred, and most people would want to stand in front, but the space might have been limited and the crowds to the side did seem larger. Density is hard to tell from a distance.
KVUE referred to the crowd as 5,000 three times, and each time, attributed the crowd size estimate to the Warren campaign. Well done.
A second TV station, CBS Austin, who had personnel at the event repeatedly referred to the crowd as being “in the hundreds”. Their reporters could have been minimizing the crowd for various reasons, or maybe they never bothered to try to make an accurate total estimate. (Link: https://cbsaustin.com/news/local/sen-elizabeth-warren-advocates-for-wealth-tax-during-austin-rally).
If the crowd size was indeed significantly less than 5,000 people, then this matters. It speaks to the credibility of the Boston Globe and its reporters and editors who allowed an inflated guesstimate to be reported as a fact, when the entity doing the estimate had a reason to inflate it. The Globe erred in not attributing the crowd size estimate to the Warren campaign, if that is in fact what they did.
Boston readers might have actually taken note of such a reference. Many know by now that our Senator Warren is a Globe favorite and admitting that the Globe used the campaign’s estimate for crowd size would be both lazy and irresponsible. So perhaps that’s why the Globe didn’t bother to mention it.
Or maybe the reporter attended the event, seeing those elbows jostling to hear their favorite candidate speak, and she did a head count from the stage to independently come up with her “more than 5,000” estimate. But since the reporter did not respond to our repeated requests for information or comment, we may never know. (If the reporter, Laura Krantz, responds to this article, I will publish her reply.)
I found an article in the Austin Chronicle which attributed the “more than 5,000” to the Warren campaign, but published a wide-angle shot of the crowd. It appears that there was seating to the sides of the stage that might be more densely packed in than the group standing in front. Looking at that photo, I would revise my original estimate to at least 2,500. (Link: https://www.austinchronicle.com/daily/news/2019-09-11/sen-elizabeth-warren-rallys-5000-local-supporters-at-austin-event/).
The Dallas News reported “several thousand” in attendance. The Austin Statesman attributed the “more than 5,000” to the Warren campaign, but termed the estimate “credible.”
The point is not how many people showed up. The issue is that the Globe should not be taking the Warren campaign’s estimate without disclosing it to readers, to allow them to weigh the large number versus the biased source providing it. When the Globe fails to make the disclosure, readers are more likely to believe the number.
In the context of the Boston Globe’s favorable Warren coverage over at least the past 18 months, my concern is that errors like this may not be mistakes. And one indication is that this story starts out by creating a narrative that Warren is on the rise, and that the “sea of people” at this event has been repeated throughout the summer. It happens so often, the Globe writes, that she’s “grown accustomed” to this. So the Globe obviously thinks the size of the crowd is important. How would it then sound if the Globe said that the Warren campaign estimated more than 5,000 attended, but the reporter’s estimate was closer to 2,500? But I’m pretty sure the Globe would never publish such a criticism of our Native Daughter candidate, at least not until she is out of the race.
As Warren Reports go, this one is about average and I have given it a “C+” bias rating. The mistake in failing to attribute the crowd size estimate to the Warren campaign may not be a bias mistake, but it is a journalism mistake, unless it was purposely hidden from readers, which would downgrade this article further.
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