The return of the guess-meter
By MÁRIO MAGALHÃES
It is understandable that organizers of events, such as the Gay Parade in São Paulo, push their numbers; it is wrong of Folha to accept them.
Before the rain stopped, at the end of the afternoon on Sept. 18, 1992, demonstrators pushing for the impeachment of then-President Fernando Collor de Mello flaunted the presence of nearly 1 million protesters at the Anhangabaú pedestrian mall in central São Paulo.
For the police, the audience was 650,000. Folha stuck with 70,000, based on a Datafolha survey.
The institute mapped the locale in São Paulo, measuring the areas occupied and observing the density (from two to six people per square meter).
Crowd estimates require rigor, and Folha's stylebook recommends: "At an important event, use scientific measurement of the area, with the assistance of Datafolha."
The newspaper had the good sense to say last Monday that the Gay Parade mobilized in the state capital the equivalent of 50 events such as the summit of people with painted faces.
Together with a photograph showing a sea of people, the front page announced: "Gay Parade in São Paulo holds public record." It added: "According to the calculations of organizers, the event brought together 3.5 million participants."
Folha gave credit to the organization but accepted the count, confirming it as a "record." The newsroom embraced the number: "Gay Parade grows; entertainment and problems too." How did it grow? Because in 2006, the "official" count was 3 million.
Readers pointed out the inconsistency. Letters to the Editor on Tuesday published a letter from Adelpho Ubaldo Longo. He figured the length and width of Avenida Paulista, with six people per square meter. The result: a maximum presence of 806,400 people.
The concentration was not only on Paulista. In reality, the parade also occupied Consolação Street. For Folha, it extended 3.2 kilometers. But that did not guarantee 3.5 million people.
The promoters spoke of adding up the public circulating and spilling out of the route but did not use the scientific method. It is understandable that they push their numbers. It was a mistake for Folha to accept them.
The director of Datafolha, Maura Paulino, confirmed the reader's conclusions. As for the number of people, he said: "I can only confirm it with certainty if they used our method." Datafolha's measurements were used from 1985 to 2000.
The newsroom pointed out that it credited the organizers for the projection. It said the eyewitness accounts of reporters and the comparison of photos "seemed to confirm that the 2007 event was the biggest."
In other words: it dispensed with procedures laid out in the stylebook. Why did Folha give those up? The newsroom responded: "Because the costs of measurement are much higher... Such investment is only justified when the precision of estimates is shown to be indispensable for the evaluation of the journalistic importance of the event."
So that was the case of the parade, with worldwide repercussions. The newspaper should resort to Datafolha again to measure crowds. In a story in 1989, Folha called other calculations a "guess-meter." Can we be assured that it is not reporting guesswork now?
Errors in the series about Lamarca
Folha committed a series of errors in its coverage on Thursday and Friday about the promotion to colonel given to Carlos Lamarca (1937-71) by the Justice Ministry's Amnesty Commission.
The newspaper asserted that Lamarca, one of the best-known leftist militants during the military dictatorship (1964-85), "died as a captain" in 1971 in Bahia state.
It was not like that: deserting the military in 1969 on his own initiative, the then-captain gave up membership in the armed forces. He was not an officer when he died, but rather a former soldier.
The newspaper said that in 1969 "Lamarca and his companions stole the safe of former São Paulo Gov. Adhemar de Barros." That was wrong: the former captain did not participate in the assault.
More unfortunate was the assertion, without a margin of doubt, that "to not be jailed" the revolutionary Iara Iavelberg "killed herself" in 1972.
The correct date is 1971, but the essential mistake was that Folha associated itself with a controversial version (there is suspicion, also unproved, that she was assassinated by security officials).
Recently, the remains of Lamarca's companion were taken from the suicide wing at the Jewish cemetery where they had been buried and transferred to another sector.
An editorial on Friday called it a grave error: "The death (of Lamarca) in combat - as it ended up happening almost 36 years ago in the interior of Bahia - is a natural risk for those who choose to take up arms."
By reporting it that way, Folha relied on the version of the military regime. In 1996, the government concluded that the guerrilla was assassinated when - malnourished, sick and exhausted - he was not strong enough to resist. In that case it would not be combat, but homicide instead of possible imprisonment. That is what the press reported 11 years ago.
Readers are divided about Folha's condemnation and promotion to colonel. Those who criticized the newspaper protested use of the term "terrorist" to describe Lamarca. However, Carlos Marighella (1911-69), one of the leaders of the armed struggle, is called a guerrilla and terrorist.
It is the right of the newspaper to give opinions. But it is recommended to be done transparently. Folha should be rigorous in narrating history, without reporting stories that will be overturned or those needing proof.
Translation by John Wright