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Tampa Bay Times reporters win Pulitzer Prize for ‘Poisoned’ series

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TAMPA— Tampa Bay Weather reporters were investigating a lead-in-the-water story from local schools when a source shared a long, dog-eared two-page health report.

These pages showed that Hillsborough County suffered from a higher rate of lead poisoning than anywhere else in Florida. An unnamed battery recycler was to blame.

Over the next few years, Time journalists Corey G. Johnson, Rebecca Woolington and Eli Murray examined the rebreather more closely than any regulator had ever done.

They revealed how Florida’s only lead smelter, run by Gopher Resource, was endangering its employees and the surrounding community. They read 100,000 pages of government and medical records, spent countless hours talking to workers, and became experts on lead toxicity.

Related: POISONED – A Tampa Bay Times investigation

On Monday, the reporters received the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Journalism for their “Poisoned” series.

“We are extremely proud of our team for their tireless reporting that has sparked game-changing change, making conditions safer for workers and the community,” said Time editor and vice-president Mark Katches. “Through their remarkable and meticulous efforts, Corey, Rebecca and Eli uncovered serious issues that otherwise would not have surfaced. Their journalism speaks to the importance of a vital local newsroom like the Time.”

Woolington said the team is most proud of the change in coverage in Tampa.

“Bringing people who had overlooked this place to pay attention in a way they never had was extremely moving,” she said. “It was surreal to see all the fallout and the consequences – and to see that the bravery of these workers led to accountability.”

This is the second consecutive year that the Time won first prize for journalism. Reporters Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi were recognized in the local category in 2021 for their series, “Targeted,” about a police program from the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.

Johnson, Woolington and Murray collaborated for nearly two years to investigate the Gopher Resource plant in East Tampa, where workers recycle car batteries and smelt lead to forge new blocks of metal.

They detailed the neurotoxin exposure suffered by Gopher workers, most of whom were black or immigrant. They also showed that the plant had contaminated the surrounding community.

Investigating a private company proved to be a particular challenge.

“There weren’t the number of public folders that are often available for us to use,” Woolington said. “We had to find a workaround.”

That workaround took the form of a federal rule that allows workers to request internal air quality records and their own medical exams. Reporters used those reports to piece together details inside the plant, which Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors had not visited in five years.

Journalists have visited Gopher employees in their homes for weeks. Johnson said many people were afraid to cross paths with their employer and were skeptical of unknown reporters. They probably wouldn’t have responded to a weird phone call, email, or Facebook message.

“The only way to do that is to knock on their door. There were many door knocks where we had to go back and forth before the ice melted,” Johnson said. “We were neighbors, we were just around the corner, so we can do it.”

The three reporters became certified lead investigators during their investigation.

“When I was there, there were industrial management type people, people who had to follow these OSHA regulations,” Murray said. It was no place for journalists.

Murray and the others pored over two thick binders to get a handle on lead regulations.

After the first parts of “Poisoned” were released, federal and county regulators spent months inspecting the Gopher plant, confirming the Time‘ and imposed more than $800,000 in fines.

Johnson said he was most proud of something that happened outside of the public eye. About 18 workers, some of whom had been afraid to speak to reporters, lined up at the factory after the first story to demand their personal medical records.

“The story and the reporting have allowed those most affected to begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and that for me has probably been the most satisfying,” Johnson said.

Other staff members of the Time The newsroom played a key role in the reporting, including photographers Martha Asencio-Rhine and Luis Santana and video reporters Jennifer Glenfield and James Borchuck. The series was edited by Katches and former investigative writers Kathleen McGrory and Adam Playford.

Designers, copy editors and engagement editors involved in the stories included: Martin Frobisher, Paul Alexander, Sean Kristoff-Jones, Tim Tierney, Greg Joyce, Ashley Dye, Joshua Gillin, Dennis Peck and Scott Brown.

After publishing the first parts of the series, the Time estimated that its main reports – dating back to school coverage – cost $500,000. This sum has since grown to approximately $750,000.

“We do this hard work to make a difference here at home, but it’s exciting that our peers judge him among the best journalists in America,” said Paul Tash, Time President.

“Poisoned” was made with the support of PBS FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which provided partial funding. FRONTLINE’s Sarah Childress and Phil Bennett consulted with the team and reviewed the story drafts.

The Pulitzer Laureates in Journalism, Books, Drama and Music were announced Monday afternoon at Columbia University in New York. Time staffers gathered in their Tampa newsroom to watch live video of the ceremony.

When “Poisoned” was announced as the winner, a few dozen staff members burst into applause. Johnson, Woolington and Murray stood in a tight embrace.

“What you did was a real public service,” Katches told the team.

the Time has won 14 Pulitzer Prizes, three times in the investigative reporting category. Lucy Morgan and Jack Reed won in 1985 for articles that detailed corruption at the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office. Time Journalists Leonora LaPeter Anton and Anthony Cormier, along with Michael Braga of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, won the award in 2016 for “Insane. Invisible. Endangered.” — a series that showed how budget cuts and neglect have allowed violence to plague Florida mental hospitals.

Murray said it was especially special to share this moment with his friends in the newsroom. He, Johnson and Woolington were only able to dig in the lead plant because other Time reporters followed the rest of the news, he said.

“A Pulitzer for a story like this takes a whole press room.”

Read the “Poisoned” investigation series.

Tampa Bay Weather Pulitzer Prize list

2022: Investigative reporting – Corey G. Johnson, Rebecca Woolington and Eli Murray

2021: Local reporting – Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi.

2016: Local reporting – Michael LaForgia, Cara Fitzpatrick and Lisa Gartner.

2016: Investigative reporting – Leonora LaPeter Anton and Anthony Cormier of The Times and Michael Braga of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

2014: Local reporting – Will Hobson and Michael LaForgia.

2013: Editorial writing – Tim Nickens and Dan Ruth.

2009: National Reports – PolitiFact.com Staff.

2009: Writing Feature Films – Lane DeGregory.

1998: Writing feature films – Thomas French.

1995: Editorial Writing – Jeffrey Good.

1991: Writing Feature Films – Sheryl James.

1985: Investigative reporting – Lucy Morgan and Jack Reed.

1980: National reporting – Bette Orsini and Charles Stafford.

1964: Public Service – St. Petersburg Times