From The Editors: Analyzing "Unhappy Cities"

Category:  From the Editors
Tuesday, April 28th, 2015 at 6:30 PM

In the industry of journalism, the debasing of information currency is both dangerous and unethical. According to its preamble, the Society of Professional Journalists believes “that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy,” and that “ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair, and thorough.”

To uphold this mission, SPJ identifies “four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism and encourages their use in its practice by all people in all media.” These four principles — to seek truth and report it; to minimize harm; to act independently; and to be accountable and transparent — serves as the guide to drive good, fair, responsible reporting, with the further understanding that journalists should take seriously the responsibility that comes with the relationship their respective media platform provides them because they are in the business of ensuring our information currency hasn’t been bankrupted.

On April 17, the Erie Times-News published Jim Martin’s “Survey says Erie is an unhappy place.” At best, the headline is an incomplete truth narrowed by the confines of print space available that should be completed in the body of the story; at worst, it’s lazy clickbait, content designed to entice readers into reading a story without much substance or thought for the sake of racking up an eyeball count.

Unfortunately, that 336-word story failed to provide any clearer context or understanding of the survey.

The 65-page paper, titled “Unhappy Cities,” issued in July 2014 by the National Bureau of Economic Research housed in Cambridge, Mass., does — as its title suggested it would do — identify the “unhappiest cities in the U.S.,” providing top-10 lists for happiest and unhappiest cities and regions, but it also reveals that “young people are still willing to relocate to them for a good job opportunity or lower housing prices,” further suggesting that “people may be deciding to trade happiness for other gains.”

In short, people choose to live in a city not solely based on their self-described happiness.

Instead of analyzing the study — which can be purchased on the NBER’s website, and is free to journalists upon request and proof of employment — Martin briefly concludes that “according to one of the study’s authors, ‘Our research indicates people care about more than happiness alone.’”

The abstract to the study reports that one interpretation of the data is that individuals “willingly endure less happiness in exchange for higher incomes or lower housing costs,” meaning happiness isn’t the only nail upon which we hang our hat in our hometown. For proof, one needn’t look further than the most unhappy metropolitan area with greater than 1 million residents: New York City.

It’s safe to assume that New Yorkers aren’t fleeing simply because a study finds it to be the most unhappy large city in the United States in which to live. Likewise, Pittsburgh, which took the first runner-up spot, is continually heralded as a city on the rise, one to which other cities should look for inspiration and motivation.

“In this view,” write the paper’s authors, Edward L. Glaeser, Joshua D. Gottlieb, and Oren Ziv, “humans are quite understandably willing to sacrifice both happiness and life satisfaction if the price is right,” ultimately concluding that “the desires for happiness and life satisfaction do not uniquely drive human ambitions.”

Humans, in other words, are complex, complicated beings that weigh more than a single factor when deciding where to live — which explains why mass exoduses of New York, Pittsburgh, and yes, even Erie, weren’t witnessed after the publishing of this study.

So to briefly report nine months after the fact that Erie is unhappy according to a study — without a frame of reference or examination of the entire research — isn’t thorough reporting and isn’t an accurate portrayal of the authors’ purpose and conclusion.

“Individuals make trade-offs among competing objectives, including but not limited to happiness,” the authors add. “If we choose only that which maximized our happiness, then individuals would presumably move to happier places until the point where rising rents and congestion eliminated the joys of that locale.”

The fact is: The majority of Americans aren’t scouring the Top 10 Happiest Cities list and, deciding to relocate to those places based solely on its findings. And even if they did, the happiness factor would be diminished based on — amongst many things — a swelling population stressing those cities’ infrastructure.

We’re not alone in our concern regarding “Study says Erie among most unhappy regions.” “The editorial staff at this newspaper seems to relish in writing negative, defeatist, and demoralizing ‘news articles,’ about our region all too frequently,” write David and Carol Hutzel in an April 25 letter to the editor in the ETN. “We challenge anyone to seriously look into this ‘study’ to find a credible, valid, and thorough investigation.”

On July 31, 2014, admitting he was “late to game” to discuss the paper published earlier that month, Managing Editor Ben Speggen wrote about this study, noting that those discussing it at that time were losing sight of the overall finding that happiness isn’t the lone deciding factor in a city’s vitality and progress.

Just as stories must be read beyond their headlines, so must studies. Although these 973 words may fall short of capturing the breadth of “Unhappy Cities,” we hope for the sake of David and Carol — along with anyone else unnerved by the base presentation that Erie is an unhappy place without established and explained criteria — we’ve shed some light on Glaeser, Gottlieb, and Ziv’s contribution to the NBER’s working paper series. For anyone seeking a fuller discussion of the study or a chance to read it in its entirety, please contact our offices at or 814.314.9364.

Erie Reader: Vol. 7, No. 9
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