Rising gas prices used to be big news, but not so these days. Although the national average climbed to $3.56 on Feb. 20, setting a February record after going up nearly a month straight, there was far less coverage than in 2008. Broadcast networks repeatedly covered the rise under the Bush presidency. Gas prices bounced around eventually reaching $3.56-a-gallon on April 24, 2008.
The Business and Media Institute analyzed broadcast network news references to gas or fuel prices between Jan. 20 and Feb. 20, 2012 and from March 24 and April 24, 2008. BMI found that in the 2008 period there were more than 4 times as many gas prices stories, news briefs or news headlines on ABC, CBS and NBC as there were in 2012 (97 to 21).
Coverage during the time periods differed not only in quantity, but in tone as well. During Bush’s tenure, gas prices were a huge economic threat and cause of suffering. The networks also used the high gas prices to attack the administration. In 2012, the networks aired mostly matter-of-fact stories on the rising gas prices, and worried primarily that they would hinder the economic recovery, not that they are making people suffer.
Dismal broadcast network reports about “skyrocketing” gas prices filled the newscasts in 2008. There were reports about businesses closing, airlines struggling and truckers protesting -- all because of the high prices. One ABC report said families were facing the “tough choice” between food or fuel. Others said that “wallets were running on empty” and consumers were told over and over that there was no relief in sight. But by the end of November 2008, prices had collapsed to $1.82.
The networks weren’t simply reporting the painfully high gas prices in early 2008 though, in many cases they were exaggerating them. NBC’s “Today” focused on Redwood City, Calif. on March 6 where regular gasoline cost $3.99, according to the photograph NBC aired. The national average for gas that day was $3.19 a gallon. Ann Curry also failed to tell viewers that California has the highest state gasoline tax in the nation, a whopping 45.5 cents a gallon at that time.
On gasoline specifically, reporters have routinely showed photos of extreme pump prices despite lower national averages. The Business and Media Institute documented this trend in 2007, 2006 and 2005.
But now, in 2012, gas prices stories are very different. “[W]e’re seeing gas prices creep up every single week,” said one ABC reporter after delivering a positive economic report about the Dow Jones Industrial Average closing in on 13,000 for the first time since 2008. One CBS story just pointed out that if certain steps are taking against Iran, gas prices everywhere could move sharply higher.
Although the time periods BMI analyzed were the same length and ended with the same national average price for gasoline, due to price fluctuations they were not identical. In 2008, prices rose from $3.26 to $3.56 in the month we examined. In 2012, prices were already higher ($3.38 on Jan. 20).