By Peggy Lewis ’77
To read the stories of Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Caryle Murphy ’68 is to get an education in international and religious affairs. You come away knowing more and thinking differently than when you started.
Murphy has been at the Post for nearly 30 years and has lived in Africa and the Middle East where she has covered wars, politics and religion. The path that led her from Trinity College to winning a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting is filled with sobering experiences and courageous adventures that all began with a letter to a Sister of Notre Dame.
“I graduated from Trinity and was sick of books and studying so I wanted some adventure,” Murphy said in a recent interview at The Washington Post. “I wrote a nun from Trinity, Sister Fredericka, who was then teaching in Kenya and asked her if she could get me a job, teaching in Kenya and she said yes.”
Murphy stayed in Kenya two-and-a-half years, returned to the U.S., worked as a waitress, traveled to the Caribbean and decided she wanted to be a journalist. But instead of going the more common route – starting at a small town newspaper and working her way up – Murphy started as a foreign correspondent. She was in Angola, on her way to South Africa, when the new government of Portugal was considering independence for its colonies, Angola and Mozambique.
“I just got a tip from somebody in the diplomatic community who said you know it’s going to be very interesting times in Angola, if you’re trying to break into journalism. There are hundreds of journalists already in South Africa, why don’t you stay here.” She did, teaching English to pay her rent, and stringing for a series of reporters which eventually landed her a job at The Washington Post.
Murphy grew up in an Irish Catholic family in Boston, the oldest of six children, and has become an expert on Islam, the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She has lived what she writes. Losing a close friend and an in-law at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Murphy says 9-11 shows the need for all of us to become more educated about different cultures and especially the conditions that produce terrorists.
“Americans don’t understand where a lot of Muslims are coming from and a lot of Muslims don’t understand what America is all about,” she explained. “Their only image is Hollywood and that’s not a great image. 9-11 was very, extremely unjustified, a totally unjustified attack on us. At the same time I understand the conditions that over decades led to the creation of such misguided terrorists.”
Murphy says education is key. “This is a huge task before us – not only to educate ourselves about what is happening in the world but what is happening to other people in the world and how they live and their misconceptions,” she said. “But we must also help create better educational systems around the world, so that young people grow up with the faculties of critical thinking to discern fact from propaganda.”
Murphy has written a book, Passion for Islam, which explains the contemporary revival of Islam in the Middle East. She hopes people will gain a greater understanding of what Islam is going through right now and of the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and help governments in the Middle East liberalize politically and become more democratic.
She loves her work and advises aspiring journalists to get a good liberal arts education.
“I still use skills, study skills, facts and ideas that I learned at Trinity,” she said. “It was just a fabulous liberal arts education and I think that journalists, potential journalists should have a liberal arts education.” She also advises, “Write, write, write, write! Get a writing tutor to help you improve your writing. Get on the college newspaper. Spend your summers working at a small newspaper doing whatever they ask you to do. And besides English, study politics, history, political science, economics, because the habits that you’ll need to become a successful journalist are fairly quickly and easily learned on the job.”
And after all this time and hundreds of stories, she says she is still having fun.
“I think when people are deciding how they are going to spend their lives in an occupation or profession, they really have to find something they feel very happy doing. And if awards come along, well, that’s great.”
” I am still having fun being a journalist and I think I will for several more years.”