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Data, experts, a good angle can drive foreign trade coverage

By Pam Luecke

Lou Dobbs’ abrupt departure from CNN last month caused less of a stir than I expected.  The longtime CNN anchor deserves considerable credit for pioneering financial news on television nearly 30 years ago, but he lost me – and many of his viewers, I suspect – with his shift in recent years to a chauvinistic crusade against immigrants and imports.
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Dobbs’ message gained traction in some circles, I know, but not nearly as much as it once would have.   Today, Americans across the political spectrum understand how dependent their local economies are on international business – and few are willing to dismiss with a broad swipe the value of a global marketplace.

Recent international tremors touched off by a credit crisis in tiny Dubai are a further reminder of our interconnectedness:  The flap of a butterfly’s wings half a continent away really can cause a typhoon.

So how does an enterprising financial reporter report responsibly on globalization and make the topic  meaningful to a local audience?

FIRST, LOOK AT THE DATA.

Census.gov is one of my favorite repositories of economic data; this specific site is an excellent place to start for a snapshot of your state’s export trends:  Census.gov, foreign trade.

Here you can find out the top 25 products shipped from your state overseas – and the top 25 recipients. The site presents data for several years, which may reveal some fascinating shifts.  For example, Virginia’s number one export in 2007 and 2008 – integrated electronic circuits – didn’t appear at all on the list in 2006. And the state’s coal exports have doubled since 2005.

It’s not feasible to compile a state-by-state breakdown of imported goods and services, but individual states proudly tally up foreign investment. For example, Virginia’s economic development site boasts that “more than 800 internationally owned businesses from 45 countries have created more than 150,000 jobs and invested more than $18 billion in Virginia.” The site goes on to say that “Virginia’s internationally owned companies diversify our economy, enhance our culture, and introduce new technologies and advanced manufacturing techniques.”

There’s even an interactive map showing where many of these companies are located.

If you haven’t already figured out which department in your state keeps track of trade and international business, put this on your “to-do” list.  Numerous other sites and sources offer solid data about international trade as well.  Spend some time finding and bookmarking them and check them regularly for details that might lead to a good story.

SECOND, PICK AN ANGLE.

I teach in at a small liberal arts college in rural Virginia, in a county that claims to have more cows than people.  Yet my students have no trouble finding ways to bring the globalization story close to home.  I encourage them to localize an international topic in one of three ways: by issue, by company or by product.

One student, for example, took the issue of food safety and explored how international concern about mad-cow disease was hurting our local cattle farmers.  Another student learned that one of our local supermarket companies – Food Lion – is owned by a Belgian firm.  (Who knew?)  He wrote a fascinating story about how and when this grocery chain became international – and whether foreign ownership makes any difference to local shoppers. Several students have also found rich material reporting on specific Virginia agricultural products – such as apples and peanuts — that have been overtaken by Chinese imports.

Often, a big story like globalization is best told through the prism of a small item. The Oregonian’s Richard Read used such a device in 1998, when he traced the trail of a french fry from a potato field in the northwestern United States to McDonald’s outlets around the world.  (Read’s series was recognized with the Pulitzer Prize.) Tariff flaps over Chinese tires or Brazilian orange juice can offer similar windows into global trade politics.

FINALLY, TAP SOME EXPERTS.

You’ve probably already identified professors at your local universities who have research interests in international business or economics.  But don’t overlook scholars in other fields who may prove useful sources on global topics.  A religion professor might shed light on Sharia law and lending; a physics professor could bring a global perspective to the potential of wind energy; an art historian might specialize in the history of  the Silk Road.

Any of Thomas Friedman’s books are a good starting place for improving your own understanding of the global economy —  and they might suggest stories you can localize.  (Does your local hospital send X-rays overseas to be read? You and your readers might be surprised.)

Several other books can do the same. “The Travels of a T-shirt in a Global Economy,” by economist Pietra Rivoli, uses one simple product as the narrative device for telling a complex story.  My students were blown away by the chapter describing what happens to clothes after they are placed in a Salvation Army bin.

For more recent inspiration, I’d recommend the 2009 book by New York Times reporter Micheline Maynard, “The Selling of the American Economy: How Foreign Companies are Remaking the American Dream.”  Unlike Dobbs, who paints this remaking as a black-and-white threat, Maynard describes a brighter and more nuanced picture.

“Foreign companies may touch a nerve in American society and may still be an object of fear and distrust among many, who view foreign investment as a threat to the American worker and way of life,” she writes. “But foreign companies that invest in the United States are having a significant — and largely positive — impact on not only the lives of workers, but also the health of the American economy and society as a whole.”

Pam Luecke was the initial Reynolds Endowed Chair in Business Journalism, her success at Washington and Lee University paving the way for the naming of subsequent business journalism chairs.

In Basics, Beats, Best Practices, Economy, Story ideas.

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