DI alum wins Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism

Eli+Murray%2C+an+alum+from+The+Daily+Illini+and+a+2015+University+graduate%2C+is+currently+an+investigative+reporter+for+the+Tampa+Bay+Times.+Murray+has+won+a+Pulitzer+Prize+for+for+an+article+about+an+investigation+regarding+elementary+school+water+and+lead+poisoning.+

Photo courtesy of Boyzell Hosey/Tampa Bay Times

Eli Murray, an alum from The Daily Illini and a 2015 University graduate, is currently an investigative reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. Murray has won a Pulitzer Prize for for an article about an investigation regarding elementary school water and lead poisoning.

By Sarah Bond, Staff Writer

In 2015, Eli Murray graduated from the University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Now, he’s working as an investigative reporter at the Tampa Bay Times and was a recipient of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Journalism.

Murray didn’t always live in a bustling city like Tampa. He grew up in northwestern Illinois in the small farming community of Oregon. After graduating high school, he attended Sauk Valley Community College for one year before transferring to the University. 

Murray taught himself coding while in college and has used the skills ever since. 

“It was a news design class,” Murray said. “We had a short segment on WordPress, HTML and CSS, and I really enjoyed that. So, I decided that summer I would just get some books on programming and teach myself how to code.”

Charles “Stretch” Ledford is an associate professor of journalism at the University. Murray was a student in Ledford’s JOUR 215: Multimedia Reporting course. Ledford has fond memories of Murray, calling him a “self-starter.” 

“We worked on a project called Black Science Matters,” Ledford said. “We created videos about African American students in the Grainger College of Engineering. He built an amazing website for that. He put so much time into that thing, it ended up being great and won a bunch of prizes.” 

After two years, Murray graduated from the University and got an internship at the Tampa Bay Times after encouragement from a friend.

“I had a friend who worked at (The Daily Illini),” Murray said. “He got hired at the Tampa Bay Times and … they were looking for interns. So I applied for it, and I think I was kind of lucky because … there weren’t a lot of applicants that year.” 

Murray started as an intern on the Tampa Bay Times’ data team, which operated under the investigations team. 

“I published a few stories as an intern and then was hired on as a data reporter/news applications developer,” Murray said. “I did a lot of different work under that role.” 

Murray said he built an internal story building tool that is used to make special templated web pages and he also participated in news investigations. Once he began his Pulitzer-winning investigation into the lead smelter in Tampa, his title was changed to Investigative Reporter. 

The story of the “Poisoned” series began when Murray and another reporter, Corey Johnson, were investigating lead levels in the drinking water at elementary schools in the Tampa area.  

“A source gave (Johnson) a tip, sent him a report that had a couple earmarked pages on it,” Murray said. “The report was on morbidity statistics for the state. When you open it to those earmarked pages, you see the data for lead poisonings. We saw that Hillsborough just jumped off the page.” 

Gopher Resource Tampa, a factory that extracts lead from car batteries, is located in Hillsborough County. 

The “Poisoned” investigation found that Gopher exposed workers to extreme levels of lead in the air and many workers had health issues that could have been tied to lead exposure. Gopher disabled ventilators that would have helped clear the air and provided weak respirators, and the company doctor never told the workers that their blood-lead levels put them in danger. 

The investigation was mainly done by Murray, Corey Johnson and Rebecca Woolington. Murray explained one of his important roles in the project.

“There was a lot of data analysis,” Murray said. “We had a lot of air data from inside, air data from outside, and blood lead data from inside. A lot of what I did was assembling the databases and then fact checking it, making sure that you didn’t have any duplicates and everything was correct, and then doing the analysis on top of it.”

Woolington, the current investigative editor for the Tampa Bay Times, explained how the three balanced the workload. 

“We kind of split up the work,” Woolington said. “I focused on the science reporting, interviewing experts, reading medical records and writing stories up. (Murray) focused on some of the expert and science stuff as well as, like, all of the data analysis.” 

Woolington said that the team also talked to factory workers.

“This was Corey’s main focus, but we would all go knock on doors and interview workers sometimes,” Woolington said. 

Both Murray and Woolington talked about one interview in particular. 

“One of the first houses we went to, the three of us showed up at the door and it was answered by a woman,” Murray said. “We weren’t sure we were in the right place. But we introduced ourselves and we said we were investigating the lead smelter in Tampa. Immediately she started to cry.” 

Woolington recalled the woman’s emotional recount of her and her family’s lives with lead poisoning.

“Tears just streaming down her face, she invited us in and on her counter were a stack of medical records,” Murray said. “It was a daily pain for her, going through these records and setting up appointments for her son. Her son had been born with a lead level and there’s no safe level of lead in children.” 

Murray explained that the older the child got, the higher his lead levels rose. His father continued to work at the factory until 2017. 

“That could only mean he’s being introduced to more lead, so it really put the family at odds,” Murray said. “The dad used a separate car for work, he had a separate set of clothes for work, he had a separate cell phone,” Murray said. “He would come home and put all of his clothes directly into the washer and change in the garage.” 

Woolington remembers how her, Murray and Johnson felt while interviewing this woman. 

“It was very clear at that moment that Eli was very moved by what he was experiencing, as I think we all were,” Woolington said. “I remember watching him and seeing that he was very moved by what was happening.” 

For the investigating team, seeing the impact caused by lead poisoning served as motivation to tell their story to the wider community.

“We were all feeling it, this woman’s emotion, and realizing that this is something important, a story we needed to dig into,” Woolington said. “But I also felt like, this sounds corny, but he was doing his job for the right reasons.”

 

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