$4 Gas? Networks Fueled Outrage in ‘08 With Nearly 3 Times As Many Reports

High cost of gasoline was causing plenty of pain just a few years ago, today not as much.

The national average for gasoline is perilously close to crossing the $4-a-gallon marker once again. On March 28, the average rose to $3.91 for a gallon of regular gas according to AAA’s fuel gauge report. As of April 2, the average was up another penny to $3.92.

Four dollars isn’t just a big round number. It carries with it tremendous potential to harm the economy. But even when the price is the same, the news media haven’t reported the story in the same way.

The Business and Media Institute analyzed broadcast network news stories discussing $4 gas in the 144 day period of rising prices leading up to such highs in 2008 and 2011/2012 (Jan. 1, 2008-May 23, 2008 and Nov. 6, 2011-March 28, 2012). BMI found there were nearly 3 times as many stories about $4 gas in 2008 than in 2012 (85 to 31).

The public is feeling the pain of those high prices, as they were in 2008. According to Edmund’s Insideline, people in 10 states and the District of Columbia are already paying more than $4-a-gallon. A Gallup poll cited by CNBC recently found 85 percent of U.S. adults want “immediate actions to try to control the rising price of gas.”

In 2008, NBC’s “Today” exaggerated already rising prices by airing a story about a gas station in California charging $5.40 a gallon for full serve premium -- when regular was $2.11 less. NBC even quoted the station owner saying people had told him to “burn in hell” for charging such a premium.

Back then, ABC found gas prices coming between families and God in 2008. Bianna Golodryga interviewed  Juan Martinez who said, “We’ve really cut down on the amount of times that we’ve come into service since the price has gone up.” CBS even found someone who said they wish they could go back to using a horse and buggy.

That was the way the media treated gas prices as they climbed to $3.91 (on their way to an eventual peak of $4.11). Not only is there less coverage about $4 gas now, the tone is less hyperbolic. In some cases, such as the March 15 “Good Morning America,” network reporters  found “encouraging news on gas prices.”

That morning, anchor George Stephanopoulos was psyched to report “new indications” that gas prices “may have peaked.” Prices have climbed nearly 10 cents per gallon since that day’s average ($3.82).

In that same broadcast, Stephanopoulos claimed “so far, high gas prices haven’t hurt the consumers.”

Consumers seem to disagree. The Los Angeles Times reported March 27 that the prices caused a dip in consumer confidence and that restaurant owners were “living in fear of rising gas prices.” CNBC reported on March 26 that “drivers are choosing to consume less, evidenced by a 3 percent drop in total consumption over the same period a year ago.” “Economists have begun to worry as well,” CNBC noted.

CNBC’s Jim Cramer pointed out on the March 7 “Today” show, “We have never seen above 4 [gas] not hurt the recovery … There’s no way it won’t.” Yet, there has been significantly less coverage of the prospect of $4-a-gallon now, than there was in 2008.

Local news outlets have found other effects of nearly $4-a-gallon gas. The Jamestown Sun in North Dakota reported on March 29 that gas prices “eat up charities’ resources.” “Facing the choice between spending at the gas pump or at the grocery store, some people cut back on food and turn to charities to fill their cupboards. But nonprofits are also struggling with higher fuel costs,” Christopher Bjorke wrote for the Sun.

Business & Media Institute examined transcripts from a Nexis search for $4 or four dollar and gas, gasoline or fuel to fine the gas prices stories from news programming that specifically mentioned the $4 marker. For 2008, we used the 144 days from Jan. 1 through May 23 when gasoline hit $3.911 according to AAA. For the 2011/2012 study period we went back 144 days from March 28 when gas prices hit the same exact national average of $3.911.