Top Reporters Share Their Tips on Covering the Complexities of Trade

By Chris Adams

It’s got conflict, tragedy, big numbers and even bigger egos.

It’s also got a blizzard of numbers and mounds of mind-numbing rules.

So for the reporters covering international trade – including the increasing war of words and tariffs between the Trump administration and the United States’ global business partners – the trick is finding ways to bring alive the kinds of stories that often get lost in the weeds.

In a National Press Foundation session, three top trade reporters talked about the beat and what they do to bring context and humanity to their stories.

The Wall Street Journal’s Josh Zumbrun (Twitter, bio) led journalists though the data available on trade, starting with the monthly trade report from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. That’s where the topline trade deficit numbers come from, broken down into exports and imports of goods and services.

Zumbrun explained how to find detailed export and import numbers, including the classification codes that show, for example, trade in wheat, or soybeans or “coal and fuels, other.” He suggested using the 5-digit end-use codes, which are comprehensive but not so detailed as to be meaningless.

The New York Times’ Ana Swanson (Twitter, bio) talked about what she does to make sense of all those statistics – and particularly how to humanize the raw numbers.

“A lot of trade policy is really arcane and boring,” she said. But the beat, she added, can be fascinating: “It’s about the stuff we see around us every day.”

That’s why she’s done stories on everyday products, as well as the people who harvest or manufacture them – whether lobster pulled out of Canadian waters or the steel that goes into a can of whipped cream. She detailed another story that emphasized three everyday products: beer, bacon and jeans.

And Politico’s Doug Palmer (Twitter, bio) described how the trade beat has evolved over the nearly 20 years he has covered it.

“I’ve been covering it since before Sean Spicer was spokesman . . . for the U.S. trade representative,” he said, referencing the person who rocketed to fame and then infamy as a spokesman for President Donald Trump.

Palmer talked about how the philosophies and personalities of top officials, including the U.S. trade representative, change the dynamics of U.S. policy. And he talked about how Trump has been much more engaged on the issue than any recent president.

There are also different power centers on trade issues within the Trump administration. In previous administrations, Palmer could focus mainly on the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Now, he needs to pay attention to the treasury secretary and the White House as well.

Subscribe on YouTube
More Presentations
Help Make Good Journalists Better
Donate to the National Press Foundation to help us keep journalists informed on the issues that matter most.