We dislike Ike

Rebekka Schramm, WGCL

Here’s a topic for your next journalism class:  How do you handle the gasoline shortage story?

The question is worth asking because the news media contributes to the mindset that causes panic, hence shortages.  Is there any way to avoid that?  The story has been out there since Friday, when Hurricane Ike hit Texas.  Gas stations started hiking prices and motorists flocked to pumps to top off.

Since then, TV has done numerous live shots at the tank farm in Doraville, and at metro gas stations.

Darryl Carver, WAGA

Darryl Carver, WAGA

On Monday, WAGA all-but ignored the gasoline shortage story.  Darryl Carver’s pieces at 5 and 6 dwelt on wildly fluctuating prices.  The shots of dry pumps were cursory.  WXIA’s Duffie Dixon produced a piece at 11 that explained QuickTrip’s strategy of spreading gasoline inventories among geographic areas.  Dixon’s piece indicated a method behind the madness of closed-down gas stations. At 4pm on WGCL, Rebekka Schramm reported on why stations reliant on the spot market pay higher wholesale prices for fuel.  WGCL handled the shortage with an anchor vo/sot.

Ross Cavitt, WSB

Ross Cavitt, WSB

But on Monday, WSB was all about the gasoline shortage.  It led its 6pm news with the story, putting Lori Geary live at the tank farm.  Geary interviewed a jobber who explained that shortages are manageable as long as the public doesn’t panic.  WSB followed with John Bachman, live at a gas station, with more on shortages and high prices.

At 5pm, Ross Cavitt was live at a gas station, reporting entirely on shortages.

WSB’s stories were level-headed and responsible.  But here’s the question, class:  Does the mere fact that WSB (or any other station) trumpets the gasoline shortage contribute to the panic that causes the shortage?  If so, does the station have a responsibility to rein in its coverage?  In the age of the internet, does journalistic restraint matter anymore?

Yes, WSB is covering news.  It’s not creating news.  The shortages are legit, as is motorist anger over prices.

But TV has been covering the story since Friday.  Monday, it appeared that somebody at WAGA decided:  Let’s give the shortage story a rest today.  It appeared WGCL made somewhat the same decision.  We say, good call.

11 thoughts on “We dislike Ike

  1. Dirty Laundry

    Just a note:
    Why is everyone these days a “motorist?”
    I’ve NEVER heard that in actual conversation. It really irks me! Why can’t we call ’em what they really are? DRIVERS and/or PASSENGERS.

    Just my two cents.
    Keep up the great Web site.

  2. live apt fire Post author

    Glad you asked. I’m also a big fan of conversational English. But I’m a bigger fan of brevity and clarity. To me, “driver” can be awkward and ambiguous (like “shooter” when the word should be “gunman” or “assailant” or “attacker.”) “Motorist” is a word that exactly describes a person who operates an automobile.

    That said, I’ve heard others gripe about “motorist.” But I like it.

    Thanks for checking in and for the kind comment.

  3. rptrcub

    My question, since I was occupied with other matters Friday and the weekend: did any station ever come on the air, or emphasize in their newscasts, that people shouldn’t panic (i.e. they’re making problems worse by doing this)? I remember that one or two stations, I believe, came on the air in Augusta after Katrina in a public service effort to help stem the panic started when so-and-so sent e-mails from so-and-so who allegedly heard it from the horse’s mouth… etc. etc.

  4. live apt fire Post author

    Glad you asked. I should have emphasized that all the TV stations I watched said that Ike wouldn’t cause gas stations to run out of gas. Instead, they said panic would. They advised strongly against panic. Guess what their viewers did anyway?

    TV viewers tend not to heed the intricacies of such stories. Which is why TV stations need to ask themselves whether extensive reporting on shortages, irrespective of their “hey, it’s not a big deal” message, leads to problems with gasoline supply.

  5. locutus of borg

    This is a great and important debate. Do you report the news if that news will bring hardship or disorder or will spark panic among the people? I have a friend in state government who once said, “you know what? Sometimes the public does not have a right to know certain things.”. While I strongly disagree with that statement, there are times when public safety and public order take precedence to the public’s right to know.

    There are many people who believe, and rightfully so, that the media helped cause the terrible gas shortages after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Again, the press was not being irresponsible insofar as they were simply reporting the news. But that news fueled panic already bubbling under the surface.

    From my meager observations this time around, it appears the media has taken that incident to heart and is doing, for the most part, a very low-key coverage of the gas situation, concentrating more on high gas prices than shortages. For that, they are to be commended.

    But again, it sparks the debate: when is the truth more harmful than ignorance? Do any of us really know that answer?

  6. Atlanta Media Guy

    Watch the weather! When a hurricane comes into the Gulf and heads for Louisiana or Texas, quietly go fill up your tank. I did last Thursday when the price was $3.55, if you waited until Friday it was already over $4.

    Don’t worry with oil at or around $90 a barrel the price should fall to almost $3 once the refineries and the Colonial pipeline gets up and running again. If not, Bill O’Reilly’s head might explode! That could be fun to watch.

  7. Amy

    As a journalism student, my answer would be extremely dependant on my view of media responsibility/dependency. Do the people interpret the media and make decisions based on the material put out, or do the media tell the people what decisions to make? I believe that while the media does have a responsibility to report accurate and unbiased information, it is up to the VIEWER to decide what/if/how to take action. And, honestly, anyone thinking that the media makes peoples’ decisions for them needs to understand that is a characteristic of schizophrenia, and needs to, well, see a doctor. This post reminded me of the “copy-cat” crimes argument – should the media shy away from reporting mass causality shootings just because some idiot with a remote in his or her hand could get an idea? Should NBC have not reported on the VT murder’s manifesto just because now some guy can see his “masterpiece?” Hell. No. The public has a right to know. And those who are willing to go out to society and participate in illegal acts deserve what they could potentially get. That’s a tad of an extreme parallel, but necessary coverage is necessary coverage when tax payers and, in this case, gas buyers, need to know what’s going on. Did the media cause everyone to freak out and go out and buy gas on Friday night, therefore causing a shortage? No. The people did. Does my pen misspell words?

  8. CD

    You give the media way too much credit for all of this. Haven’t you noticed readership and viewership is waaay down.

    Here’s the scoop. People drive down the street . . . some stations with fresh shipments have higher prices . . . the one’s that haven’t raised their prices (afraid they will be accused of gouging) quickly sell out with people topping off their tanks. A big line forms and then the yellow tape around the pumps.

    People fear the worst and it all beings again the next day. Then media types – who know that they are the center of the universe – have some moral dilemma about what they have done. Meanwhile the public goes back to watching the football game.

  9. rptrcub

    @LAF: Perhaps if newscasters introduced the advisory in language a 5-year-old could understand, it might help, in a calming tone like Mommy would use to reassure her children. Of course, I’m cynical.

  10. Hates Other Dogs

    For anyone that worked the day of the Rita gas outage, it was an email that made the rounds that Friday that caused the panic. The phones in the newsroom rang off the hook! Everyone in town got the scary email warning of a gas outage. It was not mainstream media made.
    Also, LAF, what is your beef with WSB? Their reporting seemed very reasonable to me.
    You did not even point out that WXIA sent a “Breaking News Alert” out on Thursday night warning of a potential gas shortage. I’m assuming you do not subscribe to the alerts.

  11. Hates Other Dogs

    Ah! Hit the send button too early.
    It is okay if you do not subscribe to breaking news alerts. Means you have a life. 😉


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