Kirk is studying print journalism and international studies at the University of Kentucky. She received an award from the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at UK for excellence in journalism.
There’s a saying in the newsroom that if everybody is happy, you’re not doing your job as a journalist. I’m the editor-in-chief of The Kentucky Kernel, the University of Kentucky’s student newspaper. For the past year, my staff and I have been investigating how sexual assaults are handled by the school administration, focusing specifically on allegations that a professor sexually assaulted two female students and was then allowed by the university to quietly resign, paycheck intact. After we published a story exposing more details about the case, UK decided to slap us with a lawsuit to withhold the investigative report from the public.
Even though I feel like our university is not on our side of justice, this journey has taught me a lot about what it means to be a journalist. I see parallels in my struggle for transparency in higher education with the battles fought by publications like ProPublica and The Marshall Project to expose the FBI and local law enforcements’ inadequate investigation of rape cases—a story that, through their joint reporting, won them the Pulitzer. I’m constantly inspired by journalists all over the country who are telling the great stories of our nation right now. And as I start in my own career, their work teaches me there will always be a place for watchdogs, even in the face of threats to freedom of the press. Here are a few stories that I hope journalists keep chasing:
America’s opioid epidemic is worsening, and it’s evident in the rise of reporting on the issue. Last March the Chicago Tribune reported that doctors were overprescribing opioids intended for medical use and creating a new generation of addicts. This January The New York Times put a human face to the effects of the epidemic, and this March The Washington Post shed light on rural West Virginia towns where the state can’t even keep up with funerals for overdose victims. The Atlantic even gave historical context, connecting how American government’s fraught history with regulating drugs led to where we are now. The parents who have lost children in this new drug arena can have hope that the world will see them as more than just another statistic, addict, dealer, or dead body because reporters are taking the time to humanize them. I hope we continue to uncover more of these important stories.
I’ve wanted to be a war reporter since I was a young girl. I watched the World Trade Center towers fall on 9/11 from my living room television, and learned about the conflict in the Middle East by watching CNN, from the invasion of Iraq and the capture of Saddam Hussein to the reelection of President George W. Bush. More recently, reading about Syrian Civil War correspondent James Foley’s capture and murder at the hands of ISIS only reinvigorated my desire to pursue stories of children like Omran Daqneesh, whom the world watched from the lens of Syrian journalists as he was carried out of the rubble of Aleppo—the child placed in an ambulance, alone and scared. I remember the heart-wrenching feeling of seeing two-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body face down on a Turkish beach, and thinking what was going through Turkish photographer Nilüfer Demir’s mind when she took that photo. Too many Americans (and even politicians) believe that the Middle East is a problem best solved by carpet-bombing. Journalists who have the human decency to tell these stories so the images and pleas of these refugees can be viewed in the States would say it’s worth being shot at and possibly dying for these people to have a better chance at life. I want to continue the legacy of journalists like Foley, Christiane Amanpour, and Anderson Cooper, and be there on the front lines making a difference too.
When I found out that my university was making agreements with staffers accused of sexual assault and harassment—and was not informing the public or future employers—I made sure to warn the public, using my campus newspaper as the outlet. I hope reporters remain dogged about this issue; recent stories by CBS’ 60 Minutes Sports about Baylor University’s handling of cases of sexual abuse and The Chronicle of Higher Education’s comprehensive tracker of mishandled cases of sexual violence at universities are inspiring.
The judge on the case between my paper and the university ruled in favor of UK to withhold the documents about the sexual assault cases we reported on, but we’re appealing. Our story will help ensure the professor’s record is in the open to any prospective employer, and we’ve filed open-records requests at eight public universities in Kentucky. Sometimes I get nervous about what we’ve taken on, but then I’ll get grateful emails from survivors. It’s high time we stop the pattern of universities hiding sex offenders, and I won’t stop fighting.
Kirk is studying print journalism and international studies at the University of Kentucky. She received an award from the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at UK for excellence in journalism. Read more about her here.
This article originally appeared on Glamour.com.
Pressuncuffed.org seeks to encourage and promote rigorous student reporting, scholarly research and debate on the role of, and obstacles to, independent journalism in the United States and abroad. Our website features reporting by University of Maryland students about press freedom in the United States and abroad. It also offers resources to instructors elsewhere who may want to teach classes or hold workshops on this theme. In the near future, this site will become a place for student work from around the country and abroad.
Dana Priest, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner at The Washington Post and Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Maryland.