Thursday, January 19, 2012

What Number One Means

Durham, NC is no stranger to the number one spot on rankings.  Again, on Monday, it was ranked as America's Most Tolerant City by Newsweek/The Daily Beast.  Number one is a nice spot to be on such a list, especially for a community that aggressively promotes its accepting and welcoming nature born of the community's diversity.  In short, everyone is welcome in Durham.

The ranking is certainly a nice accolade, but the public can benefit from some deeper understanding of the list before shouting from the roof tops.

First, rankings are ever more common in modern media for a several reasons. Media companies (yes, these are companies that need to make a profit like any other) are strapped, often more so than others, with thinning employment ranks due to shrinking revenue.  They, like everyone else, need to do more with less and deliver what the people want.  History provides myriad examples of people wanting to be, or know who is, number one.  In other words, rankings sell papers, magazines, and website hits and media often use them to achieve that goal to great effect.

Second, rankings are fairly easy to produce.  Without diminishing the value of this ranking--or any other--consider that these lists are usually more compiled than researched, and that they are not necessarily efforts journalistic in nature, but more so exercises in simple arithmetic.  They don't carry a lot of water in terms of scientific validity.  Additionally, these rankings are often based on criteria that can seem a bit arbitrary as they typically look at disparate and unrelated facts, and then draw conclusions therefrom.  Put another way, rankings like this aren't always an expression of a news organization's most arduous efforts.

Third, these rankings are rarely of cities.  The data they cite is often of a thing called a Metropolitan Statistical Area, or MSA.  The US Census Bureau creates MSAs based on populations in certain land areas.  For example, Durham is in the Durham-Chapel Hill MSA with Durham being the anchor of the four county area so named.  Those counties are Chatham, Durham, Orange and Person; not a city at all.  The Daily Beasts' study methodology states that the ranking "limited the cities under consideration to those with a population greater than 250,000 according to the U.S. Census Bureau." According to the US Census, the city of Durham has a population of 228,330.  This is a perfect example of improperly identifying an MSA as a city - a common error that is vexing to all, especially those in destination marketing.

Fourth, this ranking makes no mention of Durham's Latino population.  Residents from Central and South America make up, according to the US Census, 14.2% of the population in Durham. Perhaps not relative to the outcome, but worth noting as it relates to the overall value of the ranking.

If a destination is looking to hang its hat on a research study about a given aspect of their community, say tolerance or openness, then one with more scientific backbone is likely a better support.  Destination marketing thought-leader Reyn Bowman, President Emeritus of the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau in Durham, NC wrote about openness recently on his blog Bull City Mutterings.  Reading the associated studies he cites quickly demonstrates that to measure a community characteristic such as tolerance or openness is both difficult and time consuming.  It's not as simple as pulling three details from three separate sources and using those pieces of data to indicate a statistically valid outcome.  The studies cited to generate these numbers are all sound in their own right, but the tabulation of them collectively to produce rankings yields data that just don't hold a lot of water.

Nonetheless, Durham, NC is a tolerant place - and no ranking is necessary to define that.  People in Durham, and those who visit, already know: it is accepting, diverse and anyone who so desires to be is welcomed.  For those interested in all the rankings that Durham has received, visit the website on which rankings are organized in a searchable database.

So yeah, kudos to Durham for the ranking.  Residents always appreciate recognition of the fact that Durham is a place like no other, and that it really is where great things happen.

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