Picture Imperfect: Media Gas 'Tax' Hikes Cost 32 Cents in June

     The broadcast networks have created what amounts to their very own tax on gasoline. The “tax,” on average about 32 cents, gets applied when news shows use images to go with stories about the “whopping” price of gasoline. That amount is equal to Wyoming’s entire state gas tax burden.

     The Business & Media Institute looked at a snapshot of coverage during the week of June 23, following a trend it has documented in years past. The pictures showed pump prices higher than the national average 83 percent of the time.

     ABC and NBC showed prices higher than the national average 100 percent of the time in that coverage – in 18 out of 18 stories. ABC averaged a 42-cent price hike, while NBC showed prices 36 cents higher than average.

     CBS told a different story. The network showed prices lower than the average four out of six times. Three of CBS’s lower-than-average images came in one June 28 segment. But the other two showing price hikes were so large that the network still averaged a 12-cent inflation of national prices.

     The images showing gas price signs were usually followed by images of frustrated Americans filling up their gas tanks. On June 24, NBC “Nightly News” reporter Ron Mott ran a story explaining that gas is such a hot commodity, all types of businesses are using it as a way to attract customers.

     Mott quoted the price of gasoline at “four bucks a gallon,” but video showed a sign advertising regular unleaded gas at $4.89. That was 82 cents higher than the national average that day. The camera zoomed in on the numbers and slowly dropped down the sign to see the price of premium and diesel, which ran up to $5.13, also an atypical price at the time.

     But just showing higher-than-average gas prices hasn’t been enough for the networks. Journalists have also been predicting jumps to $7 a gallon – or higher.

     On June 26, both ABC and CBS claimed that gas could hit $7 a gallon in two years. ABC’s “World News with Charles Gibson” reporter John Berman warned, “But the most painful prediction? The investment bank CIBC says gas could jump to $7 a gallon by 2010. As if $4 wasn't bad enough.”

     The price of gas on the sign ABC displayed showed gas at $4.39, 32 cents higher than the national average. The image went alongside the words “outlandish predictions” and “coming true,” as the camera zoomed in to add to the theatrical effect.

     ABC’s Bianna Golodryga predicted on “Good Morning America” June 29 that gas prices may force drivers to move. “The price of gas could hit a whopping $7 a gallon,” she said. “That translates to $120 to fill your average sedan, and even more if you own an SUV. Higher gas means you'll have to drive less and maybe even reconsider where you live.”

     Golodryga’s segment showed two inflated gas signs – one at $4.59, 52 cents higher than the national average; another at $4.70, 63 cents higher than the average.

     CBS’s “Evening News” reporter Priya David made a similar comment June 26. “The $7 mark will arrive by the year 2010. Hardest hit, those making under $25,000 a year. Their gas bill will go from 7 percent of their income to a whopping 20 percent,” she said.

     That story followed anchor Katie Couric’s introduction, which included a gas sign at $4.85, 78 cents higher than the national average. However, CBS did a better job on reporting gas prices fairly.

     “The Early Show” on June 25 displayed a pump selling gas at $3.70 a gallon, 27 cents below the national average. A June 28 report on “The Early Show” included gas at $3.99 and $3.89 – 8 cents and 18 cents below the average, respectively.

     Earlier in the June 25 show, however, Bill Weir warned that the gas prices will affect “the price of eggs to your retirement.” Doom-and-gloom predictions have been common in the media for years.

     On gasoline specifically, reporters routinely show photos of extreme local pump prices on the screen despite lower national averages. The Business & Media Institute documented this trend in 2007, 2006 and 2005.