Journalism alum Murray wins Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting with ‘Tampa Bay Times’ team
While meeting with the family of a former battery recycling plant manager whose son had lead poisoning, a Pulitzer Prize-winning story crystallized for Eli Murray (BS ’15, journalism), investigative reporter at the Tampa Bay Times.
The family had been suffering because their son was born with a lead level that creeped higher each year.
“The lead could only be coming from the factory where [the] husband worked and it had driven a wedge into their family and put them at odds with each other,” Murray said. “I could see what was at stake for this family and the hundreds of other workers’ families.”
Murray, and fellow investigative reporters Corey G. Johnson and Rebecca Woolington, received the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting for their series “Poisoned,” described as “a compelling exposé of highly toxic hazards inside Florida’s only battery recycling plant that forced the implementation of safety measures to adequately protect workers and nearby residents.”
“The investigation by the Tampa Bay Times into dangerous conditions at a lead smelter spurred immediate improvements for health and safety,” said Pulitzer Prize Board member Nicole Caroll. “This newsroom changed workers’ lives, and its reporting shows the critical importance and impact of strong local journalism.”
Murray said he’ll never forget visiting that family: “Every day since it has been a driving source of motivation to shine light into these dark corners to tell these workers’ stories and hopefully effect change.”
The investigative team had spent almost two years gathering data and reporting before the first article in the series was published in 2021. Murray spent months building a database from thousands of pages of PDFs and analyzing the results.
After their Pulitzer Prize was announced on May 9, the Tampa Bay Times reporters shared remarks. Murray acknowledged some University of Illinois journalism faculty members for helping him on his career path. (See video.)
“I wanted to thank a few of my other mentors: Brant Houston, Stretch Ledford, and Jennifer Follis, who encouraged me to follow the data and the programming side of things and to find a way to make that work in journalism and in telling great stories,” Murray said.
Murray was drawn to data journalism because of the ability to tell a story visually that resonates with audiences.
“Eli was an excellent, dedicated student who was a natural at data journalism and great to work with,” said Brant Houston, Knight Chair of Investigative Reporting and professor of journalism. “I am so pleased, but not too surprised, with all his accomplishments and the recognition he has received. I expect there will be much more to come.”
“Beyond Eli’s obvious and prodigious talents as an investigative reporter and data journalist, I think it’s important to recognize that talent can take one only so far down the road to success,” said Charles “Stretch” Ledford, associate professor of journalism. “What brought Eli to this place of international recognition are the same humanistic qualities that made him an outstanding student and vital collaborator here at Illinois—a thirst for knowledge, a restless mind, an unflinching commitment to the truth, and—I don’t know a better way to say it—a heart of gold. These qualities would have carried Eli to great things no matter his chosen field. The people of Tampa Bay, and beyond, are indeed fortunate that he found his calling in journalism.”
Murray was hired at the Tampa Bay Times as a data reporter following an internship there in 2015. As a journalism student at Illinois, he received the Glenn Hanson Scholarship in Visual Communications from the College of Media. He also worked at The Daily Illini as a reporter covering Urbana city government during his junior year, and became a web developer in charge of building the Salary Guide during his senior year.
To learn more, see Tampa Bay Times reporters win Pulitzer Prize for ‘Poisoned’ series.