STUDY: Media Missing The Mark On Gas Prices

››› ››› JILL FITZSIMMONS

A Media Matters analysis of print and television coverage of rising gasoline prices between January 1 and February 29 finds that news outlets often provided a shallow and shortsighted treatment of the issue. For instance, several outlets largely overlooked fuel economy standards -- a key policy solution that mitigates U.S. vulnerability to price spikes -- while promoting increased U.S. drilling and the Keystone XL pipeline, which would likely move gas prices by only a few cents, if at all. In addition, cable news outlets primarily hosted political figures rather than energy experts or economists to comment on gas prices. Fox News, which covered gas prices far more frequently than any other outlet, regularly blamed President Obama for the recent price increase, a claim in line with Republican strategy but not with the facts.

The following chart shows the total coverage of gas prices between January 1 and February 29:

TV News Buries Key Policy Addressing Gas Price Woes

Reducing Consumption Is Key To Mitigating Our Vulnerability To Price Spikes. According to the Energy Information Administration, the cost of crude oil, which is set on the world market, determines 76 percent of the price of gasoline. Energy experts agree that the way to reduce our vulnerability to gas price spikes is to decrease our dependence on oil, regardless of where the oil comes from. [Media Matters, 2/23/12]

  • Michael Levi, Council on Foreign Relations: "Since oil is traded on a global market, the effects of volatility are reflected in the price of every barrel of oil regardless of its origin. This problem can be addressed only by making the U.S. economy more resilient to oil price swings, which includes -- most significantly -- lowering total U.S. oil consumption."
  • Economist Severin Borenstein: "To fix the problem, we just need to use less oil."
  • Energy analyst Chris Nelder: "Increasing efficiency is going to be a far more productive policy tool than increasing supply."
  • Moody's Chris Lafakis: Higher average fuel economy, "be it through electric vehicles or improved efficiency on conventional vehicles," lowers "the percentage of consumers' incomes that they spend on gasoline."

News Outlets Largely Overlooked Fuel Efficiency Policies. Only 2% of broadcast coverage, 4% of cable coverage, and 13% of print coverage of gas prices mentioned fuel economy standards, which have been significantly raised by the Obama administration. Two of the 9 mentions of fuel economy standards on Fox were GOP candidates calling for their repeal. CBS and The Los Angeles Times did not mention fuel efficiency standards in their gas price coverage at all. Out of 69 print items on rising gas prices, only three made the point that reducing oil consumption is the best long-term solution. These figures include views expressed by those interviewed or quoted.

Nearly All TV Outlets Promoted Drilling More Often Than Fuel Efficiency. With the exception of NBC, every television network mentioned expanded drilling as a solution more often than fuel economy standards. Fox News promoted the narrative that more domestic oil production will lower gas prices in 45% of its coverage. These figures include guests' comments if they were not challenged by the anchor. Energy experts, including those who are politically conservative, have repeatedly debunked the idea that increasing U.S. production is an effective solution to high prices. In fact, even the American Petroleum Institute won't say that expanded drilling would hold down prices. An analysis by the Energy Information Administration estimated that the difference between a scenario in which the Atlantic, Pacific and Eastern/Central Gulf of Mexico are open to offshore drilling and a scenario in which they remain off-limits is 3 cents per gallon of gasoline in 2030. Such a small effect would be dwarfed by the impact of rising oil consumption in Asia, geopolitical conflicts, or OPEC supply adjustments. [Media Matters, 2/23/12, 6/23/11, 5/12/11]

Cable News Falsely Presented Keystone XL As A Gas Price Remedy. Economists say that TransCanada's Keystone XL oil pipeline would not noticeably lower gasoline prices. Even Ray Perryman, the economist hired by TransCanada said the effect would be only "around 3.5-4 cents per gallon" and not until the pipeline was "flowing reasonably close to capacity" in several years. He added that "a modest change of this nature will often be swamped by the day-to-day factors that impact market prices." Some analysts say the pipeline could actually raise prices in some parts of the country. But every cable news outlet promoted Keystone XL more often than fuel economy standards. In almost 40% of its coverage, Fox suggested that approving Keystone XL would help relieve rising gas prices. These figures include guests' comments if they were not challenged by the anchor. [Media Matters, 2/23/12]

Cable News Offers Political Figures Rather Than Energy Experts

Cable Networks Relied On Politicians To Explain Rising Gas Prices. In total, 63% of those interviewed or quoted on gas prices by cable outlets were political figures (including politicians, strategists, White House officials and campaign advisors), and only 13% were economists or oil industry experts. By contrast, 49% of those quoted by print outlets were economists or industry analysts and 35% were political figures. On the broadcast networks, 49% of those interviewed or quoted were consumers, 32% were political figures, and 17% were economists or industry analysts. The following chart breaks down the credentials of gas price commentators on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC:

Fox News Wrongly Blames Obama For High Gas Prices

Experts Say It's Simply Bad Economics To Blame Price Spike On The President. As countless experts and fact-checkers have noted, global factors largely determine the price of oil, not U.S. policy changes, let alone any actions President Obama has taken.

  • Energy economist Severin Borenstein, a professor at U.C. Berkeley's Haas School of Business, explained: "Oil prices drive gasoline prices and current oil prices are high. But $125 per barrel oil today is no more the fault of President Obama than $147 oil was President Bush's fault in June 2008. There is very little the U.S. president can do to change oil prices over months or a few years. U.S. oil production was up 13 percent in 2011 over 2008, but still remains less than one-tenth of the world oil market." [U.S. News & World Report, 3/2/12]
  • In a U.S. News & World Report column, Cato Institute fellows Peter Van Doren and Jerry Taylor wrote: "President Obama is no more responsible for production increases than other presidents were responsible for production declines. Unfortunately, presidents get blamed for world market changes that occur during their time in office ... but generally, they do not cause them." [U.S. News & World Report, 3/2/12]
  • Tom Kloza, chief analyst for the Oil Price Information Service, told USA Today: "We'll continue to see plenty of blame attributed to both parties if we see prices go higher. But there is very little a president can do to impact gas or crude oil prices over the short term." [USA Today, 3/8/12]

Nevertheless, More Than Half Of Fox News Coverage Falsely Suggested Obama Is Responsible. Our results show that Fox News covered gas prices far more often than other news outlets -- more than CNN and MSNBC combined. 55% of Fox News coverage suggested that President Obama is to blame for rising gas prices. In total, Fox blamed Obama 144 times in two months - more than three times as much as all other news outlets combined. These figures include guest quotes if they were not challenged by the anchor or author.

Fox Narrative Mirrors GOP Campaign Strategy. The New York Times reported in February that Republicans see rising gas prices as an opportunity to attack President Obama on the economy:

In a closed-door meeting last week, Speaker John A. Boehner instructed fellow Republicans to embrace the gas-pump anger they find among their constituents when they return to their districts for the Presidents' Day recess.

"This debate is a debate we want to have," Mr. Boehner told his conference on Wednesday, according to a Republican aide who was present.

[...]

And talking points from the Republican National Committee that go out to conservative commentators every Friday often include rising gas prices among the "Top Line Messaging" for the week. A recent "Pundit Prep" document cited the national debt, unemployment and the price of gas as the three best ways to define the "Obama economy." [New York Times, 2/18/12]

Methodology

This report analyzes print and television coverage of U.S. gasoline prices between January 1, 2012 and February 29, 2012. Our analysis includes the major broadcast networks (ABC, NBC and CBS), the major cable networks (CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC), and five major print outlets (New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and Wall Street Journal).

For print outlets and CNN transcripts, our results are based on a Nexis search for "(gas w/3 price!) or gasoline". For the Wall Street Journal, which is not available in Nexis, we searched Factiva for "(gas near3 price!) or gasoline". For the Fox News and MSNBC shows not available in Nexis, we relied on an internal television archive. Our analysis includes any article or segment devoted to gas prices, as well as any substantial mention (more than one paragraph of an article or news transcript.)

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