“It was the largest crowd ever assembled in one place in Chicago history, most officials agreed, but they could not agree on how large the crowd actually was.” — Oct. 6, 1979, Chicago Tribune
It's an interesting sentiment, but it's wrong. Several times in Chicago's history have more people gathered in one place (read about it here). Pope John Paul II's visit is a particularly stark example of the pitfalls and gray areas in measuring large crowds.
In October 1979, Pope John Paul II became the first pope to visit Chicago.
The visit was part of a six-day trip to the United States, which also took the pope to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Des Moines, Iowa. Chicago was chosen not only because it was the nation's largest Catholic archdiocese at the time, but also for its central location.
Citing city officials, the next day's Tribune reported attendance estimates for the nearly 3-hour service ranging from 500,000 to 1.5 million people. Chicago was home to 3 million in 1980. Could Grant Park host a crowd half as large as the city itself? One Tribune reporter set out to get answers.
Q&A with the reporter who questioned attendance estimates
Bill Currie is a former Tribune reporter who was part of a 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning team that uncovered voting procedure violations. These are his recollections of his reporting in the days following the papal mass:
Tribune: What made you question the crowd size (1 million people) reported by the city?
Currie: Of course the city didn't estimate 1 million beforehand, but I had a hunch they would, because boosterism has always been part of Chicago politics. I've always questioned commonly held beliefs and urban myths, such as Chicago is the largest Polish-speaking city outside of Warsaw. People and too many journalists just accept them.
Crowd estimates are a variation on the theme. I think my first question was what does a million people gathered in one large expanse look like. I knew what 60,000 at Soldier Field looked like; I also knew what 38,000 people at Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field looked like. I couldn't imagine a million people could gather in any one place. In other words I was very, very skeptical. I think I had read of 1 million people gathering in Ireland to see the pope. I was curious.
How did you find an expert to come up with a more accurate crowd estimate?
You, know. I just started making calls that led logically to the federal park service and the mall, where crowd estimates are very important to those with political and financial interests. I think that's where I learned that people in a crowd of 200, need 4 square feet to stand. Maybe I got this from city planners, events planners or insurance people, but if my memory serves me it was the federal park service.
Did you have any problems getting your editor to run the story?
I can't say it was a horrible problem, but it did take a long time to convince them that simple math belies most crowd estimates. It seemed absurd to them that math-challenged reporters and editors could debunk authoritative crowd estimates by calculating the square footage available and dividing it by 4. What it boiled down to is that nobody ever questioned it before. Notice that they didn't use that simple math in the story. They had to rely on experts, the intelligence agencies and the park service people.
How did reporting for this story help with other stories?
I recall being very frustrated that I had to include the quotes from (former press secretary for then-Mayor Jane Byrne and current Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael) Sneed sticking with their estimates.
It's a common problem in journalism — false equivalency. The estimates I wrote about came from qualified experts; her estimates came from a (police commander) who clearly didn't know what 1.5 million people looks like in a crowd. The sources are not equivalent.
I'm not quite sure what a daily newspaper should do about crowd estimates. On the one hand, if the mayor's press officer says there was 1.5 million people some place, you have to quote them. But who can a reporter go to for another opinion?
It's a time problem too. I spent a month before the story, measuring, doing the math, and arranging for a photo over Grant Park. Then I sent them off to the four military services intelligence agencies. (By that time I had been covering the military for the Tribune for 10 years, so I had good sources in the Pentagon.) Need I say that it's also a matter of the principle of the least effort? Moreover, newspapers have always been perpetrators of boosterism and jingoism.
By the way, I don't think 1 million people (let alone 2 million) have ever gathered together in any one place in the world since time immemorial. Prove it, I say.