Pump Prices Taking More Out of Wallets, But Not Much of Newscasts

Gas prices are at record highs for the time of year, and took a bigger bite out of household income last year than in decades, yet the topic has taken just a fraction of the broadcast network news programs’ time.

“The Energy Department’s statistical arm reported Monday that the average household spent $2,912 for gasoline in 2012, which makes up almost 4 percent of pre-tax income, tying 2008 for the highest percentage in roughly 30 years,” The Hill’s Ben Geman wrote on Feb. 4.

And prices have already climbed higher, after dropping throughout much of the fall.  Pump prices are at record highs for the beginning of February. The national average for regular unleaded gasoline has climbed 24 cents a gallon since Jan. 17. But from the 18th through the morning of Feb. 5, ABC, CBS and NBC only spared eight minutes combined for talk of rising pump prices on their morning and evening news programs. More than half of that, four minutes and 1 second wasn’t until the morning of Feb. 5, after the EIA report was released.

That day “Good Morning America’s” Josh Elliot announced that morning “we have just learned that gas prices have skyrocketed.” Never mind that prices had been climbing for more than two weeks.

NBC’s Tom Costello had a series of reasons for the rising prices on “Today” Feb. 5, including the bizarre notion that it had to do with an improving economy. He blamed factors such as refinery shutdowns, the start of the shift to summer blends and “a perception on Wall Street that the economy is picking up.”

Perhaps the media had trouble spotting this climb since they had been on the lookout for a price drop just months earlier. In the months leading up to the presidential election, all three broadcast networks predicted that gas prices would be much lower by late November: after the election. “Good Morning America” co-anchor Paula Faris said on July 2, 2012, that “the best news” was that prices might drop 50 cents per gallon by Halloween. In reality, prices were 20 cents higher on Oct. 31.

But forecasting lower prices is the exact opposite of the way gas prices were covered under President Bush. Not only have rising prices been historically hyped much more for Bush, than Obama, during the Bush years they often used images of gas pumps to inflate the price of gas to reflect the worst. In the two weeks around Hurricane Katrina, the network evening news programs showed pictures of gas prices that were, on average, 75 cents per gallon higher than the national average price.

Julia A. Seymour
Julia A. Seymour
Julia A. Seymour is the Assistant Managing Editor for the MRC's Business and Media Institute.