By Chris Adams

One nation’s “war” is another nation’s “dispute.” And for the media caught in the middle, navigating that tension – and understanding the rhetoric – is vital.

That’s been the task for reporters covering the trade disputes among China, the U.S. and several other nations that accelerated with the election of Donald Trump.

For most news organizations, trade used to be a backwater beat. No more: Since 2016, the struggles between Congress and the president, between free-traders and protectionists, between Silicon Valley and the Rust Belt, and between the U.S. and the world’s most populous country, China, are often front-page news.

In an online training for the National Press Foundation, three journalists – Rick Dunham of Tsinghua University, Paul Wiseman of The Associated Press and Megan Cassella of Politico – offered tips on how to cover this fast-changing landscape.

Dunham (bio, Twitter) has had a unique perspective on the unfolding story. As a longtime U.S. political reporter and editor who now co-directs the global business journalism program at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Dunham has been able to compare how U.S. and Chinese media cover it.

For Chinese journalists, it starts with the word “war.”

“They were very careful in state-owned media or Communist Party owned media not to use the word ‘war,’ ” he said. “They would talk about ‘trade friction,’ ‘trade dispute,’ ‘trade tension.’ It was never described in state media as a war. That was the opposite of U.S. coverage.”

Dunham said Chinese media painted their country as a victim of U.S. aggression and a campaign to block their country’s rise. They portrayed China as responding to American actions, not exacerbating them. And Chinese media wrote about what it saw as illogical tariffs being put on their nation’s goods.

The Chinese media also often treated Trump with more respect than did American media.

“Chinese media does not criticize Donald Trump,” Dunham said. Instead, they quote Trump’s praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

U.S. media, by contrast, was very “Trump-centric” and spent newsprint and air time analyzing whether a specific action would help or hurt the president with his base.

“There was a lot of who’s winning and who’s losing,” Dunham said. “Is this helping Trump or hurting Trump? Is China winning or is the U.S. winning?”

To be sure, there were a lot of fact checks on Trump, and some on China, and there was some coverage of trade policy (PolitiFact’s trade-related checks). But a large share of the coverage focused on the daily skirmishes the trade war.

But Durham said some media organizations offered standout coverage. Among them: The Wall Street Journal for its scoops and The Associated Press for its efforts to humanize the impact of the trade war.

Part of that Associated Press coverage was by Wiseman (Twitter), a reporter who has seen his once-sleepy beat mushroom in importance. Wiseman’s beat is international economics, and four years ago trade was a minor part of it. “Donald Trump came along and changed everything, and my job changed significantly,” he said.

Wiseman’s daily routine is to check in with Politico’s “Morning Trade” report. He also has a built a roster of trade lawyers and think tanks, such as the Peterson Institute and its “China Economic Watch” blog.  He tries to marry policy with people – such as the Iowa farmer whose livelihood depends on exports and for whom tariffs are a pocketbook issue.

Wiseman’s people-focused coverage won NPF’s inaugural Hinrich Foundation Award for Distinguished Reporting on Trade. (Wiseman accepts his award and describes his reporting here.)

Wiseman’s work:

US to China: Don’t steal trade secrets the way we used to do

Countertops and rubber bands: US pursues obscure trade cases

Facing Trump’s tariffs, some companies move, change or wait

Cassella (bio, Twitter) jumped on the beat for Politico just as the U.S. began pushing to ditch the North American Free Trade Agreement in favor of a new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA. In the final stages of negotiations on that, Cassella was able to write a comprehensive tick-tock of how it all happened.

Cassella was able to put the story together on deadline because she had been keeping a chronology of developments updated in a single document, she said. “I was able to use everything in my notebook from the past couple of years,” she said.