The Women in Media: Paula Reed Ward

Courtesy: Paula Reed Ward

It’s not every day a local newspaper’s reporting results in the national shaming and subsequent resignation of a congressman.

But that is exactly what the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette accomplished last week after publishing a story revealing that now-former Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., an outspoken anti-abortion advocate, asked a Pittsburgh woman with whom he had an extramarital affair to abort their potential unborn child during a pregnancy scare.

That is the sort of hard-hitting, community-impacting work Post-Gazette reporter Paula Reed Ward has been doing throughout her long career covering courts and crime.

“We write really, really important stories every single day,” she told MediaFile.

Ward grew up in Pleasant Hills, a Pittsburgh suburb. She went to Indiana University of Pennsylvania for her undergraduate degree, majoring in journalism with minors in Spanish and political science.

She originally wanted to be a foreign correspondent, but that changed after her time at the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. After tagging along with a court reporter covering a trial involving an aggravated assault with a machete, she was “hooked” on court reporting.

“I really love the criminal justice system,” she said. “I appreciate that when I get to cover stories that they can have some impact on the community and accomplishing justice. So that’s where I’ve focused my career.”

After a two-year stint at the Republican Herald in Pottsville, Pa., she moved down to Georgia to become the Savannah Morning News’ cops reporter and to pursue a master’s degree in criminal justice from Armstrong State University.

It was here, when she was just 24, that she recalled a moment in her career when being a female journalist might have been an obstacle to doing her job.

“When I was a young reporter, I did a big project on the Savannah police department,” she said. “I was referred to by ‘that young bitch’ [by some in the police department], which I wore as a badge of honor.”

She didn’t want to play up that element of her career too much, but she was willing to discuss what life as a female hard-news reporter can be like.

“I’m not going to say I’ve suffered any ill effects, but yeah, you have people who treat you differently because you’re a woman,” she said. “You get called ‘honey’ and ‘sweetie,’ and sometimes sources would be patronizing to me. People in positions of power often underestimate young woman reporters, and they do so at their own peril.”

In 2003, Ward moved back home to cover western Pennsylvania courts and crime for the Post-Gazette, where she has been ever since.

Ward “really, really loves the law,” and appreciates that her job requires her to “interpret complex legal opinions for our readers to understand.”

During her 14 years at the Post-Gazette, she has covered everything from the criminal case involving Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht to the Jerry Sandusky molestation case at Penn State University. She even wrote true-crime book “Death by Cyanide” about her time covering the investigation into the 2013 poisoning of Dr. Autumn Klein, orchestrated by Klein’s husband.

Ward said she has appreciated the book because the speaking engagements she did while promoting it allowed her to be an evangelist for the power of journalism.

“For me, that has been the most satisfying thing about the book, because I’m able to present to the people in attendance why what we do is so important, why journalism matters and the difference we can make every day,” she said.

Though Ward has spent a career covering trials involving horrific crimes, a few have hit her hard on a personal level. For example, she found it “really really meaningful” to write a story following up on two Ethiopian children who were put into foster care and adopted by a new family after being abused by their previous foster parents.

She reacted similarly to a story about a Cameroonian woman who came to the U.S. to adopt her niece, but ultimately was unable to do so and had to go home without her. “I was heavily invested in reporting that case out, and it became really important to me,” she said.

What is it like trying to stay objective concerning emotionally draining cases while also maintaining humanity? “It’s really exhausting,” Ward said, laughing.

As for the Murphy story — which was cited as a primary source in outlets across the country, including the New York Times and Washington Post — the way Ward described it, the whole saga basically played out like the last half-hour of the film “Spotlight.”

Ward said her interest was initially piqued in August when she discovered that court documents from the divorce proceedings of Jesse Sally, a sports medicine physician, and Dr. Shannon Edwards, a forensic psychologist and Murphy’s mistress, were sealed. “Generally when we hear about cases being sealed, we want to know why,” she explained.

The Post-Gazette knew that the secrecy involved a sitting congressman, so its attorneys filed a motion to make the documents public. On Sept. 6, a judge ruled in the Post-Gazette’s favor, and hours later, Murphy released a statement admitting to the affair.

Fast forward to early October, when Ward and the Post-Gazette obtained documents related to Murphy and Edwards’ relationship. “We had lots of discussion within the newsroom about how we should handle it and what we should do,” she said.

Ultimately, the Post-Gazette published the story revealing Murphy’s abortion hypocrisy on Tuesday, Oct. 3, and he resigned from the House of Representatives two days later.

It was a victory for local journalism, though Ward wishes that would translate to the public’s general feelings about media.

“Part of the thing that stinks, especially in the environment that we’re in today, the media gets a really bad rap,” she said. “This nonsense about fake news … it’s insane to me. And if people would just take a moment to look at what they’re really getting from their local news coverage, I think that stigma wouldn’t exist.”

Of course, that stigma isn’t enough to keep Ward from doing what she loves.

As she put it: “I think we should all work really hard and fight the good fight.”

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