Media Myth: Gas Hysteria

What goes down must come up.

     That’s what many reporters have been saying since gas prices started falling. Gas prices have dropped a total of 68 cents, dropping every business day for the past 35 straight business days since August 11.

     But after they started dropping, journalists continued referring to them as “rising,” “soaring” and “high” almost half the time. And even when reporters admitted prices were falling, the news was often undermined by reminders that prices could go back up.

     “Despite the decreases, analysts warn that we are just one hurricane or one major political crisis away from higher prices,” said NBC’s Anne Thompson on the September 20 “Nightly News.”

     A quieter hurricane season is just one of many factors behind the falling prices. Thompson also explained that Middle East tensions and BP’s pipeline failure hadn’t had the effects some price-watchers predicted. The national average for regular gas fell from $3.036 a gallon on August 10 to the September 27 average of $2.356, according to AAA’s Fuel Gauge Report.

     That didn’t stop evening news broadcasters from bemoaning high prices and predicting that falling prices would rise again.

     On August 22, when gas had been dropping for 8 business days, NBC’s Brian Williams saluted “all those who quietly suffer at the gas pump” and reminded viewers of “the old days before you needed to refinance your home to fill your tank.”

     After another 10 business days of falling prices, ABC’s Betsy Stark said on September 5 that the United States was in “an age of $70 oil and $3 gasoline.” The national average was $2.73 that day.


     The Business & Media Institute analyzed all evening news stories on ABC, CBS and NBC mentioning gasoline from August 11 – the day prices started dropping – to September 26. The analysis found broadcasters referring to rising or high prices almost half the time. On half the occasions when falling prices were mentioned, network journalists were saying they wouldn’t stay down long.

     The analysis covered 28 stories, 13 of which mentioned rising or high prices despite the fact that prices were dropping at the time. Twelve stories mentioned falling prices, but half of those undermined the news with future worries. Three stories were neutral.

Gas Is Doing What?

     It took the networks roughly 10 days to catch on that gas was falling in the first place. By August 21 ABC noticed gas had “fallen considerably,” but anchor Charles Gibson added that “the relief might be short-lived; crude oil prices rose sharply today.” Prices continued dropping.

     On the August 30 “CBS Evening News,” Bob Schieffer admitted gas “started edging back down.” He said the price had dropped by about 8 cents per gallon in the previous week, but omitted the fact that prices had been dropping since August 11 – at that point, a 21-cent decline. Though he reported “analysts say it could go as low as $2.35,” he told viewers, “it is clear the days of cheap gas are over.”

     NBC “Nightly News” finally joined the party on September 1, with Campbell Brown citing “slight relief at the pump.” Not only did it take NBC three weeks to pick up on the trend of dropping gas prices, but Brown downplayed the news, calling the nearly 25-cent drop a “slight relief.”

     And after oil analyst Phil Flynn said the price drop was “going to be a good thing for the economy,” NBC’s Janet Shamlian countered, “But not everywhere. Air fares are expected to stay high. So are home-heating costs.”

     Shamlian’s prediction about home heating was already looking shaky by September 26, when CBS’s Anthony Mason reported that home heating costs were dropping. BMI also noted earlier that natural gas prices have been trending downward.

     ABC’s Betsy Stark reported on the September 13 “World News” that “consumers are now watching with relief, as gas prices go lower and lower.” She even explained some of the factors behind prices, including the mild hurricane season and easing fears about Iran. However, she ended her segment declaring that “what comes down in the fall is almost sure to go up again the following summer” and that “despite the seasonal ups and downs, the overall trend in gas prices for the last five years, Charlie, has been up.”

     Stark could have offered the context that gas hasn’t surpassed the inflation-adjusted high of $3.12 per gallon, set in 1981. In addition, the Cato Institute’s Jerry Taylor has explained that in 1955, gasoline was 29 cents per gallon, but adjusted for inflation it would equal $1.76 per gallon. Factoring in “disposable per capita income (defined as income minus taxes), gasoline today would have to cost $5.17 per gallon to have the same impact as 29 cents in 1955,” Taylor concluded.