Hazy on number of masked Trump rally-goers in Tulsa? Media failed to zero in on the figure

Before President Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa this past Saturday evening, I predicted that 2 percent of those in attendance would be wearing masks as a precaution against catching the COVID-19 coronavirus. (You can find my forecast here, on my “Go Figure: Making Numbers Count” page.)

Of the approximately 45 people in this frame, three are wearing masks–roughly the same proportion that I found in reviewing 20 photos that I took of the TV screen during Trump’s rally.

Having heard that the capacity was 20,000 at the BOK Center (it’s actually 19,200), I computed that 2 percent figure to amount to 400 folks. After all, the Trump team was trumpeting a crowd so packed that it was going to require Agent Orange to share remarks outdoors in addition to his indoor rally, so that he could acknowledge those who couldn’t get inside the arena.

Turns out, I was wrong on both counts—massively overestimating Trump’s drawing power and, to my happy surprise, underestimating his followers’ sense of caution.

Let’s examine the first data point: turnout.

According to the Associated Press, about one-third of the seats were empty, while The New York Times coverage offered that “at least” one-third of the arena seats went unfilled. The operative part of that phrase is “at least,” as Tulsa fire officials later provided an estimate that there were just under 6,200 attendees. That latter figure, if accurate, means that more than two-thirds of the arena was empty.

The Trump camp disputes those figures, saying that it was at least 12,000 people who came. At any rate, let’s move onto my masking estimate. It’s derived from a cross-section of 20 photographs that I took of my television when C-SPAN panned to the audience during the last hour of Trump’s nearly two-hour talk.

Of the roughly 375 people in the still images that I reviewed, 28 appear to have been wearing masks. It would have been 30, but one couple (below, to Trump’s left) had their masks dangling below their chins—there’s no telling whether they were masked for most of the event.

Those 28 (to 30) represent a roughly 7- to 8-percent masked rate. Even accounting for a margin of error from this unscientific sampling, it’s hard to imagine the figure dropping below 5 percent for the entire arena, let alone going as low as my pre-event 2 percent projection.

To mask or not to mask? Who cares, anyway?

Well, for one thing, it was one of the questions that served as a hot, controversial topic in the days leading up to Trump’s visit to Oklahoma, his first rally in 110 days. Public health officials urged the President not to hold the rally. Indeed, in the context of all sorts of daily life spaces, wearing a mask (or not) is a subject of intense interest and debate across the country.

Consequently, I would have expected that news media accounts would have gone beyond the cursory general observations about the proportion of people who wore masks.

Without a doubt, hats outnumbered masks–as did beards and other staples of Trump-mania.

Instead, we got this hazy accounting from The New York Times: “Many of the thousands of Trump supporters at the rally did not wear masks or stand six feet apart — health precautions that Mr. Trump himself has ignored.” 

And an equally unambitious excerpt from USA Today: “Most of the attendees at the rally were not wearing masks, nor were social distancing guidelines observed.”

“Many” and “most” fall far short of painting the picture: by my count, more than 9 out of 10, and perhaps as many as 19 out of every 20 individuals, was mask-less. But I was watching on TV—these publications had people on the scene.

To be clear, wearing a mask is no guarantee of safety. But there is broad medical consensus that doing so lowers the likelihood of transmission, particularly from the mask wearers to those around them. So, for as long as it is a public-health matter, enterprising journalists or other observers should take the effort to provide a more precise estimate of these gatherings as the Election 2020 campaign unfolds.

Vague phrasings such as “many” or “most” going without masks—or whatever the case may be at future Trump rallies—is just sloppy, lazy reporting. The same, simple arithmetical assignment goes for journalists covering presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign gatherings, whenever those may occur.

Related Posts:
7 Take-Aways From the Trump Rally in Chicago
Lessons abound in The Daily Northwestern’s coverage of Jeff Sessions, protesting students

N.Y. Times Gears Up to Monetize News Content

A little over a year ago, I shared some insights from former USA Today editor Ken Paulson about the future of journalism.

His remarks came at a New York Press Association conference where I was training reporters and editors.

Currently the President and Chief Operating Officer of the Newseum in Washington, D.C., Paulson emphasized that the sky was not falling on newspapers.

Perhaps not, but clouds are continually hovering. One key ingredient in the industry’s future financial viability: finding a way to monetize news content on the Internet.

With that in mind, circle January 2011 on your calendar. That is when the New York Times will shift to an online-payment structure for visitors to their site, as Fast Company recently reported.

PR Aimed At Local Newspapers: Alive & Well

In yet another piece of News That Isn’t Really News comes a recent report from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Pew asked more than 1,000 folks where they got “most of” their national and international news. In 2008, the Internet eclipsed print newspapers as their primary news source.

You can see more detail here in a New York Times blog.

Local news, however, is a different beast. For one thing, local publications don’t have a user-friendly (or even, in some cases, any) website. More significantly, however, local news is a much more intimate, day-to-day relevant resource than national and international news.

While the future of major newspapers is cloudy, I am most optimistic about the fortunes of local publications that do a solid job of covering their own communities. From a PR perspective, it is crucial to recognize how to tailor news releases and story suggestions with that specific smaller geographic focus in mind.

For example, if you have five people, from five different communities in the same metro region who have benefited from a given company’s service, then the same type of story can be pitched to at least five (and sometimes even more) distinct publications.

Increasingly, this has been a most fruitful approach for our clients at Inside Edge PR. We regularly secure multiple “media hits,” each one of which is targeted to an audience that is actually in a position to take action that benefits the client (for example, becoming a new patient of a given practitioner.)

Page 1 Ads Signal Tough Economic Times

About 12 years ago, while I was on the news staff at The Courier News in Elgin, Ill., the newspaper began placing advertisements on Page 1. For what felt like months on end, we hawked a chance to win a free Daewoo.

I didn’t like it at all. The “journalism purist” in me feared we had crossed the line and, by doing so, had diminished our credibility. In short, I felt we had “sold out.”

Today, as advertising is a commonplace sight on the front page and as I near the 10-year mark of self-employment, I have a more sympathetic take on things: my paper was simply trying to do what it could to make ends meet.

That’s certainly the case with no less an institution than the New York Times, which recently began offering Page 1 ads for $75,000 a pop and even more on weekends, according to the New York Post.

Desperate economic times call for desperate measures.

Seven Years Later: "Type Headline Here"

Unlike most Americans, I didn’t have a television on Sept. 11, 2001. So, unlike most Americans, I learned about the 9/11 attacks via another medium: e-mail alerts from the New York Times.

When I checked my e-mail that morning, this missive from the newspaper was my first inkling of the terrible events that had begun to unfold on that day:

Tuesday, September 11, 2001 — 8:50 AM EST
————————————————————
Plane Crashes Into World Trade Center

A plane crashed into Manhattan’s World Trade Center this
morning, causing heavy damage and fire to several floors.

I envisioned a single-engine plane and a tragedy that was nowhere near the scope of what had occurred.

Then this e-mail arrived:

Tuesday, September 11, 2001 — 9:04 AM EST
————————————————————
Type headline here

A second plane has crashed into the World Trade Center
towers, according to the Associated Press.

It may seem peculiar to some, but to me, the biggest tip-off of the horrible magnitude of events wasn’t that a second plane had crashed–after all, there’s still no detail about the size of either plane.

Instead, I couldn’t help but note that a Times editor had been so frantic that he or she failed to insert a headline before clicking “send.”

I have many memories from that traumatic day: breaking the news to my wife through a prayer at breakfast, visiting her grandparents, reporting for Time magazine (the collective story was called “Day of Bombing”) and talking to a college friend who was 100 yards away when the plane crashed into the Pentagon.

But my first memory from Sept. 11, 2001 is perhaps the eeriest:

When my eyes opened that morning, the digital alarm clock-radio read 7:47. “Like a 747 plane,” I thought, then drifted back to sleep for a few minutes longer.
As I later learned, Flight 11 had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center about a minute earlier.