News shows have highlighted a volatile stock market and housing concerns in recent months. But even when consumers have had reason to cheer – like a 44-cent-per-gallon drop in gas prices – the networks have misreported it by a nearly 3-to-1 ratio.
Since prices began declining on May 25, the Friday before Memorial Day, the national average for a gallon of unleaded gas has dropped a total of 44 cents. That’s 14 cents lower than this time last year, according to AAA’s Fuel Gauge Report. The news shows on ABC, CBS and NBC have told a different tale – emphasizing “skyrocketing, “soaring” and “painfully high” gas prices 71 percent of the time (69 out of 96 stories).
When prices rise the slightest amount, the media cover it breathlessly. The problem is, they do the same thing – covering rising prices – even when prices are really dropping.
On August 14, nearly three months after the decline began, “Today” host Meredith Vieira still complained about the price of gas. “If you feel like your wallet is getting sucked dry this morning, you’re not imagining things. On average a gallon of gas is $2.77.” She failed to mention that $2.77 represented a decline of nearly 44 cents or 16 percent.
This spin on prices isn’t new. Last fall, the Business & Media Institute found a similar pattern in network coverage. In 35 straight business days of falling gas prices , evening news shows emphasized “high” or “rising” gas prices more often than falling prices.
With this year’s drop, the networks were still doing everything they could to hype the situation. ABC’s “Good Morning America” sent reporter Bianna Golodryga to “exotic, luxorious, suburban New Jersey” to find families who don’t actually travel for their vacation, so they don’t use any gas.
“With gridlock at the nation’s airports, skyrocketing gas prices and a weak dollar overseas, vacations can create more stress than they relieve,” Golodryga explained in the August 11 segment. According to an ABC poll, she said, 30 percent of Americans “said that they were not planning long-distance driving vacations this summer, primarily due to high gas prices.”
Gasoline had dropped to $2.801 the day of that report – 43 cents below its recent record.
Three days later, NBC’s “Today” played down the decline in gas prices and played up an increase in the cost of milk.
In a June 27 “Good Morning America” story, Chris Cuomo led into a report about rising prices for milk and pizza with this ironic comment: “We always hear about rising gas prices.” Perhaps Cuomo simply watched the network news.
If he had, he would have seen reporters looking for the most extreme examples of people coping with gas prices, even with the decline. Journalists profiled commuting alternatives like bikes and roller blades, and CBS found one man who traveled to work via horse.
Despite the news, journalists were shocked that many Americans refused to change habits. Cuomo complained that “more people than ever are choosing to drive alone to work” in a June 14 “Good Morning America” story.
Gloom, Meet Doom
The theme of high gas prices twisted some stories like a pretzel. When the Dow hit a record high of 14,000, ABC’s Elizabeth Vargas still found a reason to complain. She whined that gas prices were “sky-high” during a July 19 “World News with Charles Gibson” story, though they had dropped 21 cents since late May.
CBS anchor Kelly Wallace gave the typical media view on July 22 when she introduced a story on the lack of refineries. “Gas prices never seem to go down much these days,” she claimed.
Prices had dropped 25 cents a gallon since Memorial Day. And Wallace clearly forgot about the decline in 2006, when gas plummeted 84 cents a gallon in five months from August to December.
One of the downsides of gas price reporting is that it led some journalists to say truly stupid things. In a May 25 report, ABC’s Betsy Stark described how tough the high prices were on motor home owners and that “no matter where you gas up an RV this weekend, it’s not going to be cheap.”
Stark went on to bemoan “triple-digit fuel prices” for the 100-gallon RV. However, any price of gasoline $1 or more would result in “triple-digit fuel prices” for a 100-gallon vehicle. The last time gas prices were below $1 was February 1999, according to the Energy Information Agency.
News shows did occasionally remind viewers that prices had declined. But even when they did so, they sometimes skewed the reporting.
CBS “Evening News” anchor Katie Couric showed how to find the dark cloud for any silver lining. “News that gasoline prices are falling usually comes with a warning: Don’t get used to it. So consider yourself warned as we tell you gas has fallen 17 cents the past two weeks…”
The Predictions Were Pumped Up
One consistent theme with gasoline and oil is that network predictions seldom turn out well. This summer was no exception. NBC brought out Alaron Trading energy analyst Phil Flynn who warned of even higher prices. “I think we’re one problem away from $4 gallon gasoline,” said Flynn on the May 26 “Today.”
That problem never happened. Nearly three months later, gas has dropped substantially.
Eric Horng of ABC took his own shot at predicting gas prices. On July 15, as gas settled at $3.05, he said it wasn’t likely to get better any time soon. “With planes nearly full and roads jam-packed, lower air fares and gas prices are not expected until after Labor Day.”
Horng’s “World News Sunday” prediction that prices wouldn’t go below $3.05 was more than 27 cents off the mark and Labor Day, historically the end of the busy summer driving season, isn’t even here yet.
One reporter couldn’t even wait for the news to happen to complain about rising gas prices. On July 23, Cuomo predicted an increase. “New government numbers will be released later today, expected to show the price of gas is still climbing high,” he explained. Cuomo then went on to focus his “Good Morning America” segment on the “unique way of coping” some drivers use.
Cuomo was going in the wrong direction. He was right that the government made its weekly price announcement that day, but the price actually went down nearly 11 cents a gallon.
Even when the networks turned to experts who tried to put a positive spin on the situation, it turned out badly. The July 12 “World News with Charles Gibson” turned to one analyst to discuss the impact of higher prices. Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Jeffries and Co., explained that “$3.35 gas is not a brand new thing to us.”
Of course, Jeffries was wrong. Nationwide, the average price for a gallon of unleaded has never gone that high. On the day Jeffries made his comment, gasoline was $3.026 – more than 30 cents lower than the price he mentioned.
ABC’s Dan Harris responded by warning that things might get even worse. “But, and there’s always a but with the stock market, if, say, gas goes to $4 a gallon or interest rates spike unexpectedly, all bets are off.”
Gas dropped another 24 cents following that comment.
Not all predictions were wrong. Once more, CBS turned to oil expert Tom Kloza of the Oil Price Information Service. In a May BMI report, CBS was rated the best network for gas price coverage because of its reliance on Kloza’s insight.
His June 21 “Early Show” crystal ball worked just fine. When asked about prices he said “I think they’ll continue to drop this month.” He was right, and gas prices slipped a little further. Kloza also estimated that prices would “flirt” with $3 a gallon again, which also occurred.
He predicts prices will “drift lower” between now and Labor Day, according to posts on his blog at http://blogs.opisnet.com/archive/2007/08/21/ten-oil-questions-for-the-last-ten-days-of-august.aspx.
Why Are Gas Prices High?
Experts say the cost of gasoline can be summed up in three words: supply, demand and ethanol.
Supply has been impacted by maintenance problems at U.S. refineries. Global demand continued to keep the price of oil high, while the government’s push toward bio-fuels like ethanol raised the cost of that product as well.
At least those issues crept into some reporting. NBC addressed the supply problem by giving time to an oil executive on the May 30 “Today.” Anchor Matt Lauer interviewed ConocoPhillips Chairman and CEO James Mulva about the high price of gas. While Lauer raised questions about company profits, he did give Mulva a chance to explain that “We’re running our refineries at capacity.” And that demand had run into a crunch because of low supplies of gasoline.
“20/20” addressed profit in a June 1 report. Host John Stossel defended oil firms. “When did profit become a dirty word?” he asked, and pointed out that “nearly all the money goes to looking for more oil and in following the environmental rules that you want us to follow.”
The problems at the nation’s refineries cropped up in several stories. CBS “Sunday Morning” took just a few words of its July 22 report to explain the problem, but the message was clear. “Today’s New York Times reports that a record number of technical problems at oil refineries are trimming production and driving up gasoline prices,” said Charles Osgood.
Ethanol has been responsible for higher food prices as well.
Scott Cohn told “NBC Nightly News” viewers that the “huge demand for ethanol” was hardest on consumers. “An Iowa State University study estimates the price increases has [sic] added $14 billion to America’s grocery bill,” Cohn concluded.