Dear Editor,

On July 22, I received a telephone call from an organization that was conducting a research study about Howard County. After verifying that I was a county resident and had never run for political office, the surveyor asked two questions to obtain my opinion about how well Allan Kittleman and the [Howard] County Council are performing.

The next series of questions concentrated on sugary drinks, snacks and other foods that are offered for purchase on county-owned property. The surveyor asked my opinion on a tax on each ounce of sugary drinks purchased in stores and signage in drink/snack aisles to tell shoppers about the amount of exercise necessary to the balance the calories consumed with these selected food choices; and if diabetes was the result of sugary drinks and other unhealthy foods.

Then I was asked about my source of information about Howard County news, with the choices being major regional newspapers, like the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post; local papers, like the Columbia Flier and the Howard County Times; TV and other media.

My reaction to the survey was very negative and I ask the following questions:

  • Who drafted the questions? Clearly, it was designed to develop data to be used to overturn the county executive’s veto of the county council’s bill regarding sugary drinks and other foods.
  • Who approved the poorly worded questions on a 4-point scale, with the only responses available to be Agree/Strongly Agree or Disagree/Strongly Disagree?
  • How can any surveying organization use interchangeable local newspapers (Flier and Times) without mentioning The Business Monthly, which I believe is the premier source of local news for county residents?
  • Who is paying for the survey?
  • When will the results be published to the community, so that there can be discussion about the survey methods used to collect the data?

The only good aspect of this non-objective survey is that they called me — a person with experience in the preparation of objective survey questions, who understood by the fourth question that the purpose of the survey was slanted to develop data to overcome the recent veto.

Shame on someone — or some group — for conducting this ill-conceived survey.

— Mimi O’Donnell, Columbia

Publisher’s Response

Thank you for taking the time to write a letter to bring this information to the attention of those residents and business professionals who were not contacted by the survey consultant.

Unfortunately, by the time this issue hits the streets, the Howard County Council will have voted on whether to override the county executive’s veto. That vote took place on Friday, July 31 with a 4–1 veto override. Of course, that also comes as no surprise with this becoming a political issue as much as a health issue.

While I find it very important to educate our children to be health conscious, this whole matter has taken on an appearance of childhood bickering — or maybe, the “Desperate Housewives of Maryland.” Is this really what I expect of my political representatives? And, while studies and statistics may show sugary drinks lead to serious illness, isn’t education a better long-term solution than legislation? Perhaps, with education, the age-old business practice of supply and demand will prove to be the best solution.

I consider physical education to be equally as important as limiting sugary drinks to the health of our residents. I’m just waiting for anyone walking on public property to be required by law to walk at a pace of no less than 8 miles an hour.

The Survey

Interestingly, I know several people who were called to take the survey. One hung up at what appeared to her to be a very pointed set of questions. Obviously, Mimi O’Donnell had a similar reaction, although she later found out and wrote to me, “The Horizon Foundation has issued a press release about the survey. It refers the reader to the surveying company for more details. It appears in the company’s report that there was an option for [a] ‘depends,’ [answer] but I do not recall being given that option.”

I was a technical journalism student while in college (yes, a number of years ago). For one of my class projects, I prepared two news articles and then conducted a survey to see if the way the article was written had an effect on the opinion of the reader. Both articles related to a merger of two radio stations where I lived, in Colorado. Both articles were factual; however, one article used only the facts and quotes that gave the merger a positive spin, while the other used only facts and quotes that gave the merger a negative spin.

Of course, the opinions of 100% of the people surveyed leaned in the direction of the article presented to them. No surprise there, but I believe this example has made me a better journalist and, as such, I am more observant and suspicious of “facts” and “statistics” and how they are analyzed.

As any mathematician can tell you, statistics can support any side of any argument you propose.

I am very supportive of The Horizon Foundation and its leaders. I have always been proud of our county council members and county executives and many of the proactive stances we have taken in Howard County. But this is one time I want to simply say, “Grow up.”

The topic is important, but the way you are playing in the sand is not impressive.

One More Small Item

Thank you, Ms. O’Donnell for being bothered that The Business Monthly was not mentioned as being one of the ways people get their news in Howard County. The argument can be made that the survey was for residents, not business professionals. Of course, many residents I know are business professionals. And, many residents read The Business Monthly.

As a matter of fact, in a survey conducted by an independent consultant last year, one of the questions was, “What local publication do you read?” The Business Monthly beat The Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore Business Journal and all other publications. So to be left out was an obvious error and, if I may, insult.

I guess the argument could be made that that was a survey, and statistics can be whatever we want them to be. But if it is good enough for others, we should be allowed the same latitude. Not that we are planning on going anywhere any time soon, but where would you get your local news if it weren’t for The Business Monthly?

So, am I tooting my own horn? Sure. Obviously, someone needs to.

Thanks for listening.

— Becky Mangus, Publisher