Hardly a day passes without international trade hitting the headlines. It was only fitting therefore that the latest of our award-winning BrusselsCalling media panels focused on covering trade. Sabine Weyand, the head of the European Commission’s DG TRADE, turned the table on EU trade correspondents Alan Beattie (Financial Times), Phil Blenkinsop (Reuters), Poppy Carnell (MLex), Iana Dreyer (Borderlex) and Jakob Hanke (POLITICO). She took to the role with such aplomb that she could easily launch a second career as an interviewer.

How do you cut through the noise?

As trade becomes increasingly political and emotive, often victim to fake news, there is a greater appetite than ever for fact-based coverage. The key message from the discussion is the need to tread a fine line between scoops and analysis and to strive to present a balanced picture.

From technical to simple

Covering trade policy is not easy today. It is no longer a geeky thing about TRQs and SPS that only a few insiders understand. Now people “are coming into the library” and making a lot of noise, said Alan Beattie. The challenge is to explain technical issues to a wider readership in an accessible way. Some journalists have more leeway in this regard. Poppy Carnell and Iana Dreyer are both writing for trade policy wonks who require less explanation and more analysis. Others like Philip Blenkinsop and Jakob Hanke are writing for a broader audience and must, therefore, provide more background.

Different pressures

“Better to be late, but right,” said Iana Dreyer of the multiple pressures facing  journalists. For Poppy Carnell, the aim is to take the drama out of articles and focus instead on facts and analysis. By contrast, Philip Blenkinsop and Jakob Hanke have to provide scoops as they are under pressure to be first. Alan Beattie seeks the right blend between scoops and analytical work. Scoops also have different interpretations and are subject to the butterfly effect. For example, Beattie recalled that when he reported from Capitol Hill the prevalent view there that the Doha round of WTO talks was dead, this was news in Europe.

Finding the right balance

In a post-truth society, presenting a balanced argument is not easy. Sabine Weyand criticised the way journalists reported that the UK’s plan to use GATT article 24/b after Brexit theoretically could allow for preferential trade between two partners even without a comprehensive agreement. She said this was a red herring, as it would have required the EU to agree and this was never the case. Alan Beattie disagreed, saying this was still a story, as it hinged on a political judgement from the EU’s side. Iana Dreyer spoke of the need to paint an accurate picture, when people present different views. This can be difficult, according to Philip Blenkinsop, explaining that even though Reuters accepts climate change as a fact, it still has to include the position of people with opposing views.

Help us to help you

The journalists made a plea for better communication by the Commission. Philip Blenkinsop said the Commission’s answers are often too defensive in the midday briefing. Poppy Carnell added that “when we’re told by press officers that they can’t speculate, that forces us into the rabbit warren” of the Commission to seek answers from officials. She recalled how the Commission refused to answer a question on the implications of Brexit on the Airbus case at the WTO. This sentiment was echoed by Alan Beattie saying that DG TRADE should be addressing hypothetical questions rather than refusing to answer them. In short, rather than merely criticising the way journalists write about trade, it could take concrete steps to provide them with more information.