OREGON — When journalist Eli Murray and his two colleagues knocked on a stranger’s front door in an effort to find a man named Ko Brown, it was a woman who answered.
“We said, ‘We’re not sure if we’re at the right place, but we’re [Tampa Bay] Times reporters and we’re looking at lead issues at the Gopher factory,’” recalled Murray, an Oregon native. “Immediately, she burst into tears. They were just streaming down her face because, for so long, this had been tearing apart her family.”
The woman was Brown’s wife and mother of their young son, who has several medical conditions the Browns say are caused by exposure to lead. She took the trio of reporters inside and showed them the stack of medical papers she dealt with daily.
“Right then, we knew we had to do this story,” Murray said.
The work Murray, Rebecca Woolington and Corey G. Johnson did throughout the next two years earned them the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Their series, “Poisoned,” is an exposé of highly toxic hazards inside Gopher Resource in Tampa, Florida, the state’s only lead smelter. Their reporting forced the implementation of safety measures to adequately protect workers and nearby residents and prompted federal and county regulators to probe the smelter and confirm the newspaper’s findings, according to Pulitzer.org.
Gopher Resource has been assessed about $800,000 in fines, Murray said.
“My editor likes to say that’s about how much we spent on this project,” he said.
On Sept. 6, Murray spoke at the Oregon Public Library about the series and his journey to the Pulitzer Prize.
“I never thought I would win a Pulitzer,” he said. “I wanted to win one, but didn’t think it would happen. That seemed crazy.”
Murray graduated in 2012 from Oregon High School — now Oregon Junior/Senior High School — and then earned an associate degree from Sauk Valley Community College and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois.
He joined the Tampa Bay Times in 2015 as a data reporter, and was promoted to investigative reporter after “Poisoned” won a Pulitzer Prize.
A data reporter is, in short, a “journalist who codes” and works to present data in a visually appealing way, said Murray, who is a self-taught programmer.
In a press release from the Oregon Community Unit School District, Murray credited several of his high school teachers as early influences in his career.
From art teacher Cheryl Bunton, he learned how to convey messages visually, and from math teacher Danyel Larsen, he learned how to break down formulas into their logical components.
“Because of that approach, I came to see math as solving logic puzzles and enjoyed it,” Murray said. It’s a skill he uses to code and run data analyses.
High school English teachers John Zuber and Aaron Sitze encouraged students to thoroughly examine and engage with their work, he said. John Young, Murray’s English teacher senior year, was the one who first encouraged him to pursue journalism.
“He impressed on me the importance of seeking truth and being informed about the world around me, which ultimately led me to pursue journalism when I went to the University of Illinois,” Murray said.
Since “Poisoned” ran, Gopher employees have said they’ve seen some improvement in work conditions at the plant, Murray said on Sept. 6.
There are ongoing lawsuits with Gopher that the Tampa Bay Times is following and will report on should anything develop, he said, adding that it would be good for some reporters to revisit the issue of the overall plant conditions in a couple years.
But Murray likely won’t be the one to do so.
“For me, I’m kind of ready to start my next [project],” he said.
More information about Murray and “Poisoned” can be found at https://bit.ly/3L75up3.