Chris Hamby, ’08, received the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in April 2014 for his yearlong investigation for the Center for Public Integrity on how doctors and lawyers representing the coal industry withheld evidence of black lung and denied miners’ benefits. He now works for BuzzFeed News.
My First Published Story
I think I was 17 at the time. I wanted to do actual stories, so I pitched a first-person “life lessons learned at high school basketball camp” kind of thing [to my hometown paper] … Looking back, it was one of those things you read and almost cringe a little bit. It’s not like you start out doing the Watergate investigation.
My Pulitzer Reaction
I was just shocked and thrilled, and I was not prepared for everything that came with it. It was eerie in some respects that the announcement came almost five years to the exact minute of the death of Gary Fox, the miner in the first story. I don’t really know what to make of that. But the bizarre coincidence was particularly poignant because I was thinking quite a bit about him that day. It just felt like validation of a lot of work I really cared about.
My Introduction to Black Lung
There was one page in the report [on the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in 2010] that said of the 24 autopsies conducted, 17 had black lung. This is a shocking rate. … I decided to look into why it was coming back.
I was initially very apprehensive about getting involved in [the federal benefits system] because it’s such a complicated system that involves so many medical and legal technicalities. You’d be challenging people on their turf where they’re experts and you have no expertise.
[After compiling thousands of documents], there was such a strong connection with behavior that seemed to be out of bounds from a professional ethics standpoint and really nasty effects on people who were voiceless and powerless.
It was easy to remain motivated about this because the effects were so tangible and in my face and just really awful. When you’re doing a project like this, you have to really love it and be kind of pissed and have something that gets you going.
My Cherished Possession
The handwritten note from [miner Steve Day’s] family that they sent after I went to his funeral this year. It was clear that the stories and talking meant a lot to them — just as they meant a lot to me. We stay in touch, and that’s something that is right next to the Pulitzer certificate.
My New Gig
I was approached in November 2013 by [BuzzFeed investigations editor] Mark Schoofs. I was initially skeptical … [but] I’m really excited for the possibilities.
The BuzzFeed universe is not just people looking for a funny cat GIF; it’s also people who are interested and have a desire for these deeply reported, serious stories, too. That’s incredibly encouraging for me personally and for the future of the industry.
This piece was originally published in the University of Richmond Magazine, Winter 2015.