All eyes are on Georgia, where a closely watched runoff election on Jan. 5 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.
“This is the first time I have covered a Senate race with such national implications or attention,” says Tia Mitchell, Washington correspondent for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “This kind of nationalized state-based race doesn’t come around often.”
So how can political journalists draw on past experiences while providing coverage that serves local and national audiences? We reached out to Mitchell to learn about her approach, and about how political reporting experience can serve veteran journalists covering an unprecedented situation today.
You previously covered DeKalb County for AJC before becoming the Washington correspondent. Can you describe some of the differences in your coverage about Georgia politics from D.C. as opposed to from Georgia? What does D.C. want to learn about the runoff as opposed to the Georgia audience?
Mitchell: I cover Washington politics for a Georgia audience so, in a way, my target population has not changed much. It is a bit broader now that I write for an entire state, instead of primarily for one Democratic-led county in Metro Atlanta. But I definitely don’t approach the job from a D.C. perspective. That being said, I have done lots of talking about the runoff with national and international media organizations. I find that even though this race has national implications, as far as the balance of power in the Senate and President Trump continuing to dispute the outcome of the election, most of these outlets are also very interested in how the race is being perceived by the Georgia voters who will actually determine who wins. In that way, what they want to learn isn’t much different than the answers my colleagues and I are seeking to report.
As journalists who have covered multiple senate races before — at AJC and other publications — what are you discovering now for the first time?
Mitchell: This is the first time I have covered a Senate race with such national implications or attention. This kind of nationalized state-based race doesn’t come around often. It happened in 2017 with the [Jon] Ossoff- [Karen] Handel House runoff to a degree, but I wasn’t at the AJC then. What I’m learning is the attention isn’t just national; it’s global. And I appreciate that media outlets of all stripes are really trying to get “on the ground” in Georgia either by sending reporters to the state or seeking out analysis and reporting from Georgia-focused reporters like Patricia and me.
What are you looking forward to the most about covering this race from D.C.? What do you think are the biggest challenges or misconceptions?
Mitchell: It’s tough sometimes to be D.C.-based and unable to travel as freely because of the pandemic when so much of this race is on the ground in Georgia. I try to take advantage of my position here to focus on what [Kelly] Loeffler and [David] Perdue have and are doing as Senate incumbents. Social-distancing restrictions and the change of routines at the Capitol make that a challenge, too. I try my best to stay on top of things and keep the lines of communication open with their staff. I wouldn’t call it a misconception, but I think most folks who aren’t currently in the U.S. Capitol press corps can’t digest how different things are at the Capitol these days and how it makes it more difficult to speak directly to senators – particularly those who would rather not answer media questions. Of course, I also plan to travel to Atlanta to cover the final week of campaigning in person.
The president is outwardly attacking the Georgia 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?
Mitchell: I think the best thing for journalists to do is point out inaccuracies, lies and misinformation as plainly and clearly as possible. And I think we should do so without elevating (especially on social media) the inaccurate or misleading claims themselves if we can’t put them in the proper context at that time.
I wrote a column back in 2016 about how it’s hard to have a clear-eyed debate when each side cannot even agree on the facts as a starting point. I think the age of Donald Trump has made this an even bigger issue because too often he and his allies have submitted misinformation and lies as their starting set of “facts.” We in media must push back on and correct these bad-faith efforts.
Before joining AJC, you spent a lot of your journalism career covering Florida politics at the Tampa Bay Times and The Florida Times-Union. How has that shaped your reporting in Georgia and D.C.?
Mitchell: I spent nearly 20 years in Florida before moving to Georgia and D.C. It is where I learned everything about reporting, writing, politics and the convergence of the three. Florida has several large cities and major media markets, which created a robust and competitive press corps at the state Capitol. I had to build credibility in a crowded field and establish myself among the political experts.
When I arrived in Georgia, I was surprised about how different things were. State and local governments operated much differently; Sunshine Laws were not nearly as bright. But I knew how to cover political institutions. I knew how to build sources. I knew how to dig, follow the money and be a watchdog. I knew how to ask tough questions and stand my ground even when elected officials used bullying tactics in hopes I would back down. Those skills are universal, and I have applied them in Georgia and now D.C.