Gas prices are up. Yes. But manufacturing a story about an increase in gasoline theft has me fuming at my former profession. This morning, it just happens to be focused on Good Morning America’s Bianna Golodryga and her producers. Lazy, lazy, lazy all the way around.
I’m fishing for a transcript right now, but the gist of the story is:
- Gas prices are up.
- Some people leave without paying
- Some people are siphoning fuel.
- You should get a locking gas cap, $15.
What is spurring this sudden trend? Why, the media! “Gasoline theft” is poised to be the Shark Attack story of the summer. A story that carries great anecdotal weight, but is statistically numb.
Nowhere in the GMA piece did they cite statistics. What they did manage to find was a tearful grandmother who was interviewed through a crack in her front door, who was caught driving off without paying. Nine times, in the last couple of months.
Running On Empty
Yes, that was a powerful and emotional interview — all four seconds of it that I saw. She really seemed remorseful. Although I’m willing to bet she’s even more remorseful now that the “crack-in-the-door” interview she did with her local affiliate got kicked up to run across the nation. Television storytelling relies on emotion and visual impact. You can’t really tell a story like this one without that personal touch — but this piece is running on empty, empty journalistic calories. The “personal story” should be something that provides a slice of life, a perspective that reinforces the trend. I can tell you that 3,000 people evacuated a neighborhood, and then concentrate on how it affected a couple of those people in human ways. That’s powerful, and a good use of the medium. Giving you the human part with no statistical context is irresponsible.
This story on GMA was driven by a story that ran in a local market somewhere… and that story only made air because of that interview with the grandmother. We have no proof that gas drive-offs are more prevalent, but a broadcast journalist needs a hook (or “news peg”) to hang that story on.
Carjacking the Agenda
In searching for some evidence online, I found a couple of interesting links. This from Reuters:
NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. motorists, angered by soaring gasoline prices, are resorting increasingly to theft — a trend that could worsen heading into summer driving season, a national association of fuel retailers said Thursday.
“It is getting bad. When the price of gasoline goes up, the number of drive-offs goes up,” said Dan Gilligan, president of the Petroleum Marketers Association of America, which represents about 8,000 retailers.
So, the Petroleum Marketers Association is weighing in, providing us with the perspective that as prices rise, so does attempted thefts. Why do you think the PMAA might be making itself available for interviews at this particular time?
Gilligan said that some state fuel dealer associations were pressing lawmakers to make it easier to prosecute motorists who fill up and then drive off without paying, while many service stations were starting to require payment up front.
Oh, so they are lobbying for legislation! Read the article, and tell me if you can find any evidence that gas drive-offs are up.
So where do we get the notion that gas theft is up? I found another resource, this time a fact sheet from the NACS, the Association for Convenience and Petroleum Retailing. (Yes, I realize that it spells A-C-P-R instead of N-A-C-S, but NACS was originally founded as the National Association of Convenience Stores.) According to the NACS:
Nationwide, in 2007, gasoline theft cost the industry $134 million, a sharp decline from the $300 million reported in 2005 and the $237 million reported in 2004. (Theft totalled $122 million in 2006.)
We don’t have any data for 2008, but we’re supposed to extrapolate from this data that we’re going to have a huge year for theft? Even though 2007 was way down from 2004 and 2005? Bear in mind that the dollar-figure for theft is also affected by the price. So a pre-Katrina total of $237,000,000 in 2004 took place when regular unleaded was less than $2.00/gallon. (Great interactive chart here.)
The NACS does provide some context as to why thefts might be down, even if the temptation to steal might be up:
The problem of gasoline theft would have been even greater since September 2005 if so many retailers hadn’t begun to mandate prepay in after Hurricane Katrina when gasoline prices reached record levels of $3.06 per gallon, and when gasoline prices again topped $3 per gallon in every year since then.
So thefts are down because gas stations now won’t even turn on the pump for you until you swipe a card or go inside the store to prepay. And they’ve been doing it this way for more than two-and-a-half years.
Sucking on Fumes
ABC News, like many many other outlets that I did not watch nor will see, is guilty of lazy journalism. There is no news value in the story I saw today, other than the vague notion that I might be able to find YouTube videos of people showing me how to illegally siphon gas out of someone else’s tank. Gas thefts have been drastically down for two years because of retail policy changes, even with higher prices. We don’t have any real peg here, other than from a lobbying group that wants tougher state penalties, and stands to gain from a general public perception that this is indeed a growing problem.
In retrospect, I have no clue how long ago grandma cried to the camera. My gut (and inside knowledge of how the sausage of news is processed) tells me that the Grandma interview has been sitting on the shelf for a couple of weeks at least. It’s not even “new.” (Again, just my supposition.) My gut tells me that some hotshot producer has had that tape sitting on his desk for a couple of weeks, just waiting for enough of a gas-related news-peg to justify dusting it off and putting it on national television. So much of modern news is driven from press releases, and the truth suffers along with us.
The only surprise is that I was not able to readily find a news release from a manufacturer of locking gas caps.
[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR, news, journalism, gasoline, crime, ABC News, Bianna Golodryga, marketing, PR[/tags]