‘Follow the facts’: DC political reporter moves down south

A common misconception about Southern voters, says political reporter Patricia Murphy, is that they are “not informed and sophisticated.” 

“They are voting in what they consider their best interests, even if that’s different from what an assignment desk in New York thinks it should be,” said Murphy, who joined the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s politics team after a reporting career at CQ Roll Call, the Daily Beast, AOL News, and Georgia Public Broadcasting. 

Patricia Murphy, political reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

With her feet on the ground in Georgia as it gears up for a closely watched runoff election on Jan. 5, the veteran reporter is appreciating the change. “This is the first time I’ve ever been able to ask myself, ‘What do voters need to know about this to make their decisions?’ and have that be my story,” Murphy said. The runoff will determine whether Republicans or Democrats will take control of the Senate — and how the balance of power will influence president-elect Joe Biden’s ability to execute his agenda.

We reached out to Murphy in an email interview to learn about her transition from Washington, D.C. to Georgia during the pandemic, and about how covering this election season has been different. 

You recently joined the AJC politics team. What has it been like starting a new role during the pandemic? How are you approaching developing new sources on a new beat during a pandemic?

Murphy: I did all seven of my job interviews for the AJC, as well as all of my onboarding, and have met nearly all of my new colleagues exclusively on Zoom calls. 

That process has taught me that all things are possible during COVID, even if all things are not perfect. I’ve used that mindset with source development, too. With a select few sources and stories, I try to meet in person, always outside, because face-to-face meetings just work so much better. But mostly we’re all trying to be on Zoom and flexible with each other and it’s working. 

As a journalist who has covered Senate races before, what are you discovering now for the first time? 

Murphy: It’s not the first time, but this year the level of voter distrust seems wildly intensified. That means that everything we do, especially on social, needs to be thoughtful and 100% accurate. I’ve always tried to be meticulous in my reporting, but this is a level of scrutiny that I have not experienced before.

As an Atlanta native, what are you looking forward to the most about covering the Senate runoff and Georgia politics? Coming from D.C., what have been the biggest challenges or misconceptions about covering this story?

Murphy: As an Atlanta native, this is the closest I’ve ever come to truly providing a service to readers through my reporting.  

In national newsrooms, the emphasis has been on beating the competition, scoops, and moving the ball on a story incrementally down the field, since so many people are covering the same beat. 

This is the first time I’ve ever been able to ask myself, “What do voters need to know about this to make their decisions?” and have that be my story.

The biggest misconception about Southern voters, having worked in DC and NY newsrooms, is that Southern voters are not informed and sophisticated. They are voting in what they consider their best interests, even if that’s different from what an assignment desk in New York thinks it should be.

The president is outwardly attacking the GA Governor and Secretary of State, which some Republicans fear will impact the runoff results. How can journalists help keep the public informed without adding to the controversy? Have you seen something like this before?  

Murphy: The only thing journalists can do is tell the truth, over and over and over, in every forum possible. Many voters are making their choices based on a different set of facts and from completely different news sources, or literally fake news sources, but there’s nothing we can do but follow the facts, know the facts, and report the facts. 

Before your career in journalism, you were a staffer for three different senators. Can you talk about how this prepared you for reporting on politics? 

Murphy: Working in the Senate gave me a great insight into what happens behind the scenes – what are the considerations, who is making the calls, what are the pressures that elected officials face that we never know about from the outside?

I think it also gave me the experience of feeling like my bosses were occasionally treated unfairly by the media, or a reporter had cut corners covering my boss, and I decided I would do it differently if I ever had the chance.

Finally, how are you taking care of yourself during the pandemic?

Murphy: I’m mostly taking care of my kids during the pandemic. I have 8 year-old twins. If they’re OK, I’m OK.  

And I watch the “Great British Bakeoff”! There is a cult following of press secretaries and reporters who love that show, probably because it has nothing to do with anything. A comms director texted me the other day, “It’s Bread Week!” I loved that.

Read our Q&A with AJC Washington correspondent Tia Mitchell, who shared her thoughts on covering the runoff from D.C.

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