NAFTA PERCEPTION AND MEDIA COVERAGE

It is almost more than the news media can bear, certainly more than we can properly cover.

The news gods have just yanked us from the unverifiable to the unprovable: From fast-track to global-warming. From controversial news demanding that we evaluate the North American Free Trade Agreement to one that demands we cover the ozone.The media frets that both stories come with a common dilemma: We think we are reduced to interviewing experts on both sides who tell us views we cannot verify.

Which is to say, we help the public not one whit. What journalists really need these days, according to the didactic of Harry Truman, is a one-armed reliable source.

But wait. We have just seen an example of news reportage from America's heartland that shows there is a way to cover one of these news conundrums: The impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement on America. Lack of answers on this issue led Congress to deny the president ''fast-track'' authority - under which Congress approves or rejects, but doesn't amend, trade deals.

The Nafta coverage was provided by The Washington Post, oft-derided as the quintessential inside-the-Beltway news institution. This showed that, in at least two cities visited, Nafta was not the disaster critics predicted.

The paper sent reporter Jon Jeter to assess what happened to jobs and companies in St Joseph, Mo., and Racine, Wis. Mr. Jeter came back with great stuff. He reported that these two cities initially lost jobs when some companies relocated to Mexico, but then gained new jobs when other companies significantly increased their exports to Mexico, producing real overall reductions in unemployment on both cities since Nafta was enacted. Unemployment dropped to 4.1 percent from 7.1 percent in St. Joseph between 1992 and 1997; to 4.5 percent from 7.1 percent in Racine. That was about the same as the nationwide decline in unemployment, which fell to 4.9 percent from 7.6 percent.

He also had examples from specific companies in both cities and solid interviews with city officials, workers and employers.

But the newspaper's editors apparently didn't grasp the significance of the story they had; they played it inside on a Saturday, a newspaper's least significant news day. The info was not collated, so answers to key questions about Nafta could be understood at a glance.

Yet Mr. Jeter's reporting should be duplicated by local editors and TV news directors. He has shown that reporters across the country can assess the impact of Nafta through solid, old-fashioned gathering of facts.

Specifically, we need to answer the basic before-and-after questions for each city:

* What was happening to the companies, jobs, exports and imports before Nafta? Were companies relocating to Mexico and elsewhere before Nafta? Would this trend have continued even if Nafta had never been approved?

* What happened to companies, jobs, exports and imports after Nafta? Did the rate of relocation increase? Do company and union officials cite Nafta as the reason for the relocations, increases or decreases in trade?

The truth about Nafta can only be fully told through a nationwide effort, with local news organizations pursuing the same story in their hometowns.

Harry Truman would be pleased: The Nafta story is an assessment that journalists, not economists, are uniquely trained to perform - with one hand tied behind their backs.

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