Tampa Bay Times Investigation Makes Meaningful Impact

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An 18-month Tampa Bay Times investigation recently exposed the lead dangers at a Florida factory owned by the Gopher Resource. At the factory, workers recycle about 50,000 old car batteries a day by extracting the lead, melting it in furnaces and reforging it into new blocks, according to the Times. As a result, many of its workers now have health issues that may lead to increased blood pressure, kidney dysfunction or cardiovascular disease.

Found at tampabay.com/poisoned, “Poisoned” is a two-part series first published in March. The investigation team included investigative reporter Corey G. Johnson, investigative reporter Rebecca Woolington and data reporter Eli Murray. Former deputy editor of investigations, Adam Playford, oversaw the project until his departure from the paper last December. Mark Katches, Times executive editor and vice president, took over from there. Additionally, “Poisoned” was reported in collaboration with FRONTLINE, the PBS series, through its Local Journalism Initiative. They helped fund the investigation and provided consultation.

The first part of the series spotlighted the issues and health risks found within the factory and the consequences employees suffered. The second part focused on the lack of oversight by federal regulators. The series utilized video footage and photos from inside the factory and infographics that depicted what lead can do to a human body and what protection is needed.

The team spoke to more than 80 current and former factory workers. They identified people by searching through public records for workers comp claims and went door-to-door to find those inclined to speak, Katches said.

“(One former) worker’s wife answered the door and burst into tears when we told her why we were there,” he said. “Finally, somebody was there who was interested in their story and was willing to listen.”

Within days of publishing “Poisoned,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and U.S. Rep Kathy Castor issued calls for action and investigation into Gopher Resource. At press time, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulators were inspecting the factory.

The story is still ongoing as current and former factory employees and people that live near the site are still reaching out to the newsroom to share their experiences, Katches said.

Not only did this series make an impact in the community, but it also made an impact in the newsroom. After publishing “Poisoned,” the Times received more donations in 10 days to their investigative fund then they typically saw in an entire month, Katches shared.

As they pursue more investigative pieces, Katches said he likes to ask his team five questions: “Is it a new problem? Can you quantify it? Can you humanize it? Can you hold those responsible accountable? Can you make people care?”

“I can’t guarantee you will have impact on anything, but if you can answer yes to most of those questions, you got a pretty good chance that you’re on to a story that’s going to lead to some impact in some way,” he said.

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