OPINION: Atlanta native wins Pulitzer for exposing toxic lead plant

Corey Johnson, an Atlanta native, was the recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting. He and two staffers at the Tampa Bay Times exposed how a battery recycling plant was exposing workers and local residents to toxic hazards.

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Corey Johnson, an Atlanta native, was the recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting. He and two staffers at the Tampa Bay Times exposed how a battery recycling plant was exposing workers and local residents to toxic hazards.

In some ways, Corey Johnson’s path seemed destined from birth.

While still a newborn at an Atlanta hospital, his mother held her baby and whispered a message sent from the heavens.

“I knew he was going to be a writer,” said Alma Mustafa. “God gave that to me. When he was born, he told me to whisper ‘My little writer.’ For three days, I whispered in his ear: ‘My little writer.’”

Some 47 years have passed, but this week Johnson, a graduate of the DeKalb County school system, achieved the highest honor in American journalism. He and two Tampa Bay Times colleagues -- Rebecca Woolington and Eli Murray -- won the Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting for a series that exposed toxic hazards in a Florida lead smelting plant.

The investigative project, Poisoned, found the plant had endangered its workers and nearby residents in the low-income community around the facility. It’s the type of public service journalism that exposes wrongs, holds powerful institutions accountable and improves lives. It took 18 months of determined reporting to uncover the truth.

The team dug into thousands of pages of company records and regulatory reports. They interviewed more than 80 current and former employees, including 20 who shared their medical records. The stories led to a regulatory and community crackdown, safety improvements and more than $800,000 in fines.

Johnson is known among colleagues for his generosity and his knack for finding big, impactful stories. He has traits essential to the craft: A natural curiosity coupled with an unwavering persistence to keep going when the reporting hits roadblocks. He knows how to build trust with people so they share their stories, especially those who’ve been victimized by injustice.

“You have to connect with people,” he said. “The story is with the people. Data is great. Databases are great. Your story rises and falls with your connection with people.”

Johnson’s ability to connect is part of how he fell into journalism. He grew up in south DeKalb, was a voracious reader as a child and a gifted public speaker, even back when he was at Ronald E. McNair High School on Bouldercrest Road. After graduation at Florida A&M University in the mid-1990s, he drifted a bit.

He worked a retail job for a while and then moved back to Atlanta, where he lived in his mother’s guest room while working as a substitute teacher. He had never worked at a school newspaper when he read a passing mention about a little-known unit of the Atlanta Police Department that kept tabs on Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights era. He wanted to know more. Johnson started tracking down sources and records about the unit.

Those efforts eventually led to conversations with editors at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, including Hank Klibanoff and Shawn McIntosh. McIntosh, currently a managing editor, told Johnson that what he was doing was investigative reporting.

“I said ‘What is that?’” Johnson recalled. “Can I get paid for that because I need a job.”

In 2005, he entered a program at Vanderbilt University for minorities seeking to switch careers and become journalists. It was an immersive course that taught the basics over several months. Johnson then worked at small newspapers in North Carolina before moving to California to work for a non-profit investigative newsroom.

In his first assignment, he executed a 19-month investigation that revealed thousands of public schools across California were deficient in earthquake safety standards, endangering students and teachers. The series led to safety improvements in schools across the state. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer in local reporting in 2012.

This year’s Pulitzer is notable beyond the story it told. Johnson is only the sixth Black journalist to win the Pulitzer investigative reporting category since it was created in 1964. Johnson several years ago helped found the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting that is helping pave the way for a new generation of Black journalists to enter the field.

His mother, who today lives in Stockbridge, speaks to her son daily. During the reporting of the Poisoned series, when sources wouldn’t speak or when her son hit a reporting dead end, she turned to prayer.

“I told Corey ‘You pray and I’m going to pray,’” Mustafa said. “I’m going to remind God, he told me you are ‘My little writer.’ I prayed for those people to open their mouths and their doors so he can talk to them and get what he needed. I’ve been doing that all along for him.”

Brad Schrade is an investigations editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.