The challenge of sizing up crowds.

The complainant, Anthony Nolan, wrote to say that a report on an anti-white supremacy rally at Queen’s Park distorted the crowd size, and deliberately so, in his view. I agreed that reporting how many people expressed interest in coming, rather than the number of attendees, lacked clarity.


You took issue with a report about a rally against white supremacy held at Queen’s Park in Toronto on October 15. You said the story “claimed 6,600 people attended this Hate Fest (sic) at Queen’s Park.” You thought this was a deliberate attempt to mislead people, and to create the impression that was intended to frighten the public.

You also believed the report did not properly point out what you considered hateful in the message of those organizing the “Unity Rally to end white supremacy.”

Racists & Anti Semites cannot be allowed to make a Home for themselves at the national Broadcaster. I and my Family have been condemned to Death {because of the colour of our skin} by those attending this hate fest & the CBC makes a deliberate choice not to report those threats.


Dayna Gourley, the acting Executive Producer of News in Toronto, replied to your concerns. She told you that there was an error in a Twitter headline which stated thousands attended the rally. She added that the story on the website was accurate in reporting that 6,600 people had indicated on Facebook they were going to attend, not that they had. In order to be clear, the story was updated to mention the size of the crowd. She told you the confusion was inadvertent:

There was no willful attempt to mislead the public. CBC makes every effort to ensure our reporting is factually correct. You should be able to count on us and we will endeavour to be more diligent.

You rejected this explanation, pointing out that the number of people who had said they were going to attend or were interested was still prominently displayed. You wondered about the logic of emphasizing interest, as opposed to attendance. This created a false impression.


The article in question: “Rally against white supremacy held at Queen’s Park” is, for the most part, a straightforward rendering of the event. It quoted two of the organizers. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices calls for accuracy, of course, but also clarity. The incorrect tweet was a violation of accuracy. Estimating crowd size is an inexact science. Reporters should do their best to attribute the estimate so that citizens may judge the source. If there is a wide discrepancy in estimates from organizers and the police, for example, it is useful to provide both. In this case, “thousands” was inaccurate, a second tweet should have corrected the first. CBC News’ commitment to transparency and accuracy is best served in this way. The article itself - in its first iteration - is accurate, but I agree it is somewhat unclear. It began this way:

Large crowds gathered at Queen's Park Sunday for a rally to denounce white supremacy.

On Facebook, approximately 6,600 said they would be attending The Unity Rally to End White Supremacy in Toronto, while about 12,000 more said they were interested in the event. The rally began shortly after 12 p.m.

The juxtaposition of these two thoughts might lead one to the conclusion that the “large crowd” had reached into the thousands. In fact, it points out that in news writing, adjectives that are subjective are rarely the best way to convey information. While estimating crowd size is not science, it might have been useful - given the reporter’s choice to mention the degree of interest in the rally - to have mentioned that the crowd was nowhere near that number.

In response to your complaint, the “update” was added to clarify the crowd size. I asked Ms. Gourley why an update, and not a clarification. The reasons have to do with the particular way digital stories are presented. We both agreed, in hindsight, a clarification box would have been more appropriate. She told you, and repeated to me, that she reviewed the story with news staff. She reminded them that it is not CBC News’ practice to report how many people might attend an event.

While I agree with you that the prominence given the Facebook interest is puzzling, I don’t think it is deliberately misleading readers. In fact, by reporting there were hundreds, despite the interest expressed by thousands, it presents a clear picture of what occurred. One can draw one’s own conclusions, including surmising there wasn’t a lot of support at the end of the day.

The mention of the interest on Facebook had to do with the origins of this rally. The organizer created the event in response to a post she put on Facebook to counteract a proposed white nationalist rally, which did not go ahead. Those facts are laid out later in the story, so the connection is not as clear as it might be:

The Unity Rally was held after a Toronto Nationalist Rally was anticipated to be held at the University of Toronto in September.

The university said the nationalist rally wasn't booked for its campus and it didn't communicate with the event organizers.

The Facebook group for Sunday's Unity Rally said the event was going ahead despite The Nationalist Rally not going forward because of beliefs that the group behind the nationalist rally was still active but just without a venue.

As for your characterization of the organizers, and their motives, you are free to draw those conclusions and to express them. The reporter’s purpose is to convey what was said so people can draw their own conclusions. Various speakers were quoted. I assure you if there had been any speakers who called for the death of people with your skin color, that would have been reported. You are entitled to your views. CBC is not obliged to reflect them. This story was imperfect because of its confusing emphasis on interest as opposed to attendance. The clarification should have been made clearer on the CBC News website and on Twitter. CBC News management might want to review the process and practice with digital news staff.


Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman