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Dennis Myers: Cheapo quality of life surveys are pointless

Back in the 1980s, a friend of mine, who had left journalism to go into public relations, called me to sell me on doing a story about how, according to a survey, Reno was one of the most reading-est cities.

It sounded good to me, so he faxed the material over and I headed for a bookstore in Reno. On the way, I read through the press release and found that the “survey” had named Reno to this list from among a very small number of communities surveyed.

The designation, therefore, was essentially meaningless. So instead I did a story about the way polls and surveys can be engineered to produce the result wanted. My friend probably wasn’t crazy about my approach to the story.

We are constantly reading about how Las Vegas is being named to some list, according to Money magazine, or Nevada is being named to another list, according to the U.S. Listmaking Association. Somewhere along the way, it became apparent that so many newspapers and wire service reporters were saps for this kind of thing that the lists are now out of control.

Every day I get news releases touting Nevada as the something or other, and almost inevitably I see it is some newspaper in the state.

I have recently received news releases from flacks announcing that Nevada is:

■ first in the nation for transportation

■ 37th in the nation for spending on prescription drugs, “in the top for states dealing with the drug crisis” (whatever that means)

■ ninth in the nation on women’s rights

■ the second highest for its FICO score (hint to flacks: Don’t use terms most people don’t understand)

■ 24th in the nation for the number of senior citizens working

■ 34th on the list of most challenging places to live with spring allergies

■ 28th for the best online dating scene

■ in the bottom five for the way children are treated

■ 23rd in the nation for the expense of senior citizen homes.

I should mention that, as someone who has to read surveys a lot and is accustomed to judging which ones are reliable, I can tell readers that most PR people who are distributing these surveys will treat any clients’ spiel as holy scripture, no matter how flimsy it is.

Recently, a dating website ranked Tampa and St. Augustine at number 9 and number 14 for infidelity. I know, I know – how would THEY know? But does it really matter? A lot of these endless surveys eat up trees without having much of a reason for even existing in the first place. Besides, that’s number 9 and number 14 out of 20 cities considered. That makes it another so-what survey, given its small sample.

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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