EXPLAINER: Why police estimated crowd size of BBM-Sara rally in Cebu. Why media shun the work and just use PNP data -- and partisans routinely question the published estimate.

·5 min read

QUICK GLANCE: [1] Police estimate the crowd before the rally to prepare for police protection of the people at the event. It's not in the police job description to make a count of the actual number of attendees.

[2] Police and media know, or can learn, how to make a "scientific" crowd count. But mandate to police is non-existent or not clear and media often want to avert criticism of partisan bias.

WHERE '300,000' CAME FROM. The April 18 rally in Cebu City -- organized by One Cebu Party for UniTeam led by Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte-Carpio -- drew, news reports said, 300,000 people.

Exactly 300,000? The Freeman said in its banner headline "300,000 show up..." and in its news story "an estimated 300,000 people." Philippine Star ran a large photo of the rally on Page 1 but its caption didn't mention the size of the crowd.

SunStar in its Facebook Live news coverage said 300,000. It didn't have a news story in print but the paper used images of the rally on its front page; no description though of the crowd in the photo caption. CDN Digital said "at least 300,000 individuals." Manila Standard online also reported "at least 300,000."

The common, recurring number in the news reports of the BBM-Sara rally was 300,000 and the number came from the police.

PARTISAN CRITICISM. News organizations may make their own estimate but usually don't publish the number. Estimating crowd size is tough and tricky and the count, despite the "science" in conducting it, is not generally accepted. Partisans slam the media if they find number too high or too low for their candidates' interest.

So media toss the job to so-called independent experts, in this case, the police. But even when they do, criticism still flies. When SunStar FB Live reported the police figure of 300,000, a local leader of a rival presidentiable commented online, "Klaro asa ang SunStar nakapusta (It's clear where SunStar placed its bet)." No matter that it wasn't SunStar's count but the police official's and all other standards-driven media reported the same figure.

JOB TO COUNT. No police official has come up to say it's the police job to estimate the size of political rallies.

On the contrary, Central Luzon police regional chief Brigadier General Matthew Baccay said last April 14, clarifying the flap over the count on the Leni Roberedo-Kiko Pangilinan rally in Pampanga, said they don't estimate crowds. "We go to these places, provide security, route and area. We're not in the business of making estimates."

Not their job but: (a) they do estimate the possible size of the crowd as part of their preparation in providing security, that would be, before the rally and not during the actual rally; (b) they're usually asked for an estimate of the crowd and so prepare to give it, for fear of being accused of ignorance about the event they protect.

Perhaps the police can adopt the official protocol on the matter of estimating crowd size of political rallies.

TECHNIQUES IN COUNTING. There are techniques in counting, the most common being the Jacobs' Method, which involves "dividing the area occupied by a crowd into sections, determining an average number of people in each section, and multiplying by the number of sections occupied."

That's part of the college course in news reporting. If skipped, that can be quickly learned. Police and the governor must know that; police explanation of the Pampanga rally and the governor's "math" on Filinvest space give a rough idea of Jacobs' Method.

CRITICIZING, DEFENDING THE TALLY. Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia told reporters the Filinvest lot at South Road Properties where the rally was held is a 30-hectare lot. Do the math, she said, one hectare is 10,000 square meters, times 30 "equals 300,000 at least if we are to give an allowance of one sq. m. per person."

The governor's occupant-to-space ratio is modest. Some estimates place two persons in one square meter space, even four in packed spaces. Garcia assumed a one-in-one occupancy.

The 300,000 estimate, of course, assumed that every square meter of space was filled. And it must not disregard such factors as (a) when the count was made: in middle of the rally or towards the end, and (b) what area was covered: just the Filinvest site or including the adjacent lots where people also watched and listened?

BUSING OR 'HAKOT.' Questions though dwell not just on the count. Some partisans and a broadcaster or two talked about the alleged busing or "hakot" of people from all over Cebu, with the mayors given a quota of "delegados" from each town and city.

Which ignores the fact that every major party or contender does "hakot." Haven't they heard of serial attendees at rallies, people in the neighborhood who for rental or just food and snacks -- or just to beat the pandemic-induced boredom -- join each gathering where a crowd is needed? "They just change t-shirts, no loyalty involved."

ONE OF MANY FACTORS. The crowd size of a major rally is just a side issue. Many other factors, aside from the question as to which drew bigger attendance, influence where the vote will go on May 9.

The party with the larger crowd does not always win. "Da-ug na!" makes a good cheerleading cry but the actual vote is still the deciding factor.

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