Network Images Pump Up Gas Prices

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. On the network news, it equals about 75 cents a gallon.

     That's how much the three broadcast networks have been inflating the price of gas by showing pictures that reflect the worst gas prices. In the two weeks around Hurricane Katrina, the network evening news shows talked about rising gas prices 30 times. Those stories showed pictures of the price at the pump 46 times and those pictures were, on average, 75 cents per gallon higher than the national average price. In some cases, the prices were up to $3.25 higher than the national average.

     Heck, the federal government only tacks on 18.4 cents per gallon in taxes. The medias Scare Tax is four times higher. Its even higher than the combined state and federal tax in any single state. That includes such driver-unfriendly locations as Hawaii, California or even New York, which at 62.9 cents per gallon, is the highest in the nation.

     Gas prices are high enough. But when the average price of gasoline is $2.62, and the image on the screen is $5.87, which do you think people remember? Of course, they remember the picture. CBS showed that image four different times and even interviewed the owner of that station who said he wanted to stop people buying it for a while.

     This is from the ongoing analysis of the medias gas hysteria by the Media Research Centers Business & Media Institute. The latest piece looked at how journalists handled gas prices between August 22 and September 3 on the CBS Evening News, ABCs World News Tonight and NBC Nightly News. The analysis found the video showing prices an average of 75 cents higher than the national average at the time.

     The August 25 CBS Evening News even showed a Texas station that had a sign with a picture of an arm and a leg, as well as the words your first born, in the price slots beside the different gasoline grades. CBS correctly reported that the average price of gas in America was $2.60 that night. But the image seared into the brains of those watching was far worse. Again, which do you think viewers remembered?

     And CBS wasnt even the worst of the three network news shows. Overall, CBSs pictured prices averaged 89 cents higher than average and ABCs were 48 cents higher. The NBC Nightly News averaged more than $1 per gallon higher than the national price. None of the NBC broadcasts studied showed pictures of prices that were average or below average. NBCs Anne Thompson said on the August 31 Nightly News that no matter what kind of gas is sold, today its now unbelievably expensive. The national average that day was $2.62. The truly unbelievable part was that the image shown in that report was priced at $3.49 87 cents higher.

     When gas station signs were shown on video, those signs showed regular gas prices higher than the national average four out of five times. But it shouldnt be that hard to remember from grade school math that it takes both highs and lows to make an average. If there are dealers selling gas at $4, $5 or even $5.87 a gallon, then somewhere gas is below average or that wouldnt even out. But those below average prices only showed up one time in five. Only one low price was more than 21 cents lower than average and that wasnt even for normal gas, it was for ethanol. Rather than highlight lower gas prices, that story helped present the gloom-and-doom scenario that gas is unaffordable and must be replaced with something else.

     Thats what these reports were all about doom and gloom. Network news shows bombarded viewers with negative images of outlandishly high gas prices. And people wonder why viewers get scared and desperate. But when gas prices drop as they did for eight straight days in mid-September, most of the network news shows ignored it. In several cases, they continued to hype rising prices.

     According to the Sept. 18, 2005, New York Times, lawmakers in at least 12 states are looking at temporarily suspending their own gas taxes because prices are still high. Theyve already done it in Georgia. Legislators there know not just how much gas costs hurt ordinary consumers, but also how the impression of high prices can hurt the economy.

     Now if only the networks would follow the wise lead of the Georgia legislators. They need to stop making a difficult situation even worse through sensationalism and scare tactics and tell the truth about gas prices.

Dan Gainor is a veteran journalist and director of the Media Research Centers Business & Media Institute.