Column: America's most miserable news site is ...

Apr. 04, 2014 @ 05:29 PM

Let’s be 100 percent clear about this: There is no survey that designated the Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton area as one of the nation’s “most miserable cities,” no matter what you read on Facebook or in another newspaper or saw on the Charlotte TV news.

What did happen is that the Gallup polling organization and a company called Healthways – which sells its services to businesses looking for ways to decrease health costs while boosting performance – issued the 2014 version of an annual report that, among other things, ranked 189 metropolitan statistical areas based on a nationwide survey of more than 500,000 people, who were asked about their height and weight, how much they exercise, how many servings of fruits and vegetables they eat, whether they smoke, how much stress they think they are under and whether they have health insurance.

The pollsters plugged those answers into a formula and came up with a number expressing each area’s “overall well-being.”

Note that nowhere in the evaluation is any expression of miserableness.

If you look at the Gallup-Healthways site, you find stress on the positives, such as, "There are tangible policies that communities can adopt to actively cultivate and improve residents' well-being."

This is the most-negative thing that Gallup-Healthways said in its reporting:

“Huntington-Ashland also trailed all other metros in 2008, 2010, and 2011; its score of 58.1 in 2010 remains the lowest on record across five reporting periods spanning six years of data collection.”

This is the second-most-negative, and it involves our region and two others in the bottom 10:

“None of these metro areas are strangers to the bottom 10 list, with each community having appeared at least once on the list in a prior reporting period.”

That’s it. It’s not so bad, and it doesn’t come close to “miserable.” How could it when the 189th-ranked metro area's overall score is barely 13 points lower than the top-ranked metro?

And if you study the individual scores in the separate categories of the survey, what killed the Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton area's score was that too many people smoke and not enough people exercise regularly. In every other category, our scores were solidly in the middle of the pack, but in those two, our scores are pretty bad -- we had the fourth-highest smoking rate and 12th-lowest exercise rate.

So where, you may wonder, did the term “most miserable cities” come about?

This is a tale of the Internet and the term “clickbait.” Companies that make most of their money from Internet advertising need to be able to get lots and lots of people to come to their sites because the advertiser pays based on how many people see the page that the ad is on. To do this, some sites write headlines that are at least somewhat misleading. In other words, they bait people into clicking the headline.

The “America’s most miserable cities” headline is one of those.

Whoever did it hoped that the reaction would be, “Oh my God! We live in (or know someone who lives in) one of America’s most miserable cities! I have to post this to Facebook!” Which then would be followed by lots and lots and lots more people clicking on the link to go to the site to see the list. Better yet, the headline also appears on a photo gallery, requiring people to click through all 10, which gooses the website's statistics even more.

That “miserable” designation apparently originated at a website called 24/7 Wall St., and it spread far and wide via Yahoo!, among others (the one I saw on Facebook was on Yahoo!).

Until online advertisers decide that sheer volume of clicks is not a good measure of the value they get for their advertising dollar, you’ll probably keep seeing things like that.

But I can say this for sure: Any reporter or editor at any newspaper or TV station who picked up the "miserable" terminology without checking to see whether the word really appeared in the survey is a miserable excuse for a journalist.