When they say ‘Journalism Against the Odds’

Natalie Parks

What they mean is that when the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Kentucky, I was eating dinner. I had just left the interview at which I was selected as editor-in-chief of the Kentucky Kernel for the next school year. Then-editor Rick Childress called and said that most of the staff was already out covering their normal assignments and could I go with him and photographer Arden Barnes to the press conference and when we got there, there was a 99% chance I wasn’t going to be let in because I couldn’t find my ID, but I found it, and looking back I do not know how we made it through the next hour. I think we knew in some way what was coming, and what would be asked of us.

What they mean is that on the day UK students were supposed to move out of their dorms prior to spring break, I woke up feeling sick. I did not have COVID-19 (the next day I woke up with an ear infection so vicious I was deaf on one side for two weeks). I spent the day worrying so much I was unable to function until I visited health services. In my absence, former Kernel editor Bailey Vandiver pitched in to cover student move out. Kernel photographer Michael Clubb pitched in to drive me home because neither of my parents could take off work to come get me. Kernelites got the job done even though, as students, our lives were some of the first to be upended.

What they mean is that in April, when we were all adjusting to online school, there was a series of storms that knocked out my power for a few days and toppled eleven centuries-old trees on my grandparents’ property. Part of being a student journalist is being a student, and there I was, locked out of my virtual classes. Unable to put anything to rights. Part of being a journalist in 2020 is being a person and right then, I was floundering. Where, I thought, looking at the ruins of my family’s life, do we go from here?

What they mean is that the week UK revealed their reopening plans, I was alone. A few days previous I had quit my job because I had my first ever panic attack, triggered by my fears of infecting my grandparents with COVID-19. I sat at our kitchen table for days in a row, not eating, but staring at my computer screen. I listened to one song. I wore the same sweatshirt and washed it and washed it and washed it. I read several hundred pages of the playbook. I was not ok. I called my boss and asked him to let me come back to work so that I wouldn’t be alone in my house with my thoughts and resolved not to see my family again until it was safe. When that would be I didn’t know. I think we put out some articles about the reopening plans, but I don’t remember much from that time.

What they mean is that the day the grand jury decision in the Breonna Taylor decision was announced, I was at home. My great-grandmother had died three days earlier; not unexpected, but devastating all the same. I left campus after calling three Kernel staffers to take over the print paper that was due to come out that week. I got tested for COVID-19 and confined myself to my room until I got my test back, and cried, and went to class online and didn’t check my phone and when the decision was announced I made a protest coverage plan and published the content sent to me by the Kernelites at the marches from my childhood bedroom and I felt so, so bad that I wasn’t there in person to help. But I didn’t want to come back, either.

What they mean (and this at least should be funny) is that on Election Day 2020, possibly the most important day I will ever cover as a journalist, I locked my keys in my car. I don’t have spares. I was supposed to be across town in 20 minutes. Kernel managing editor Michael Clubb took care of it all while I laid face down on the pavement, screamed and called my dad to tell him that he should not have let me leave home.

What they mean is that Kernelites cover large, in person gatherings like parties, protests and snowball fights even at great personal risk of exposure to COVID-19. Journalists are routinely called upon to face these risks and as of now few journalists have received their COVID-19 vaccines. We feel this danger keenly and at times we shirk from it, but we still cover what needs covering.

What they mean is that since the pandemic started the Kentucky Kernel has completely reinvented the way it operates, from ceasing print production for the remainder of the spring semester in 2020 to leaving our newsroom completely empty this school year – operating entirely through virtual means for meetings, interviews and production nights. We decided to never have more than three Kernelites together for an extended period of time because having three people compromised at any given time would cripple our staff. We have sacrificed many of the things that make college papers worthwhile for student journalists – casual chats in the office, pick-up basketball games, celebrating together. Those perks have been replaced by pandemic stressors and increased pressure to do our jobs well, knowing that our work is not only a documentation of these historic times but also a public necessity. Though this is a worthy sacrifice, it is not easy, and like all students we have struggled with the loss of the lives we were supposed to lead.

What they mean is that the Kentucky Kernel is still, more than five years later, embattled by a lawsuit from the University of Kentucky over an open records request. As a student journalist, I have never not been being sued by my college. I literally do not know what it is like to be a part of a college newsroom that is not at legal odds with its university. From day one Kernel editors impressed upon me the importance of standing up for our rights as journalists, because our editors know what it is like to have their rights threatened. We’ve tried to stand up for those rights this year, fighting for the same access that was given to big papers for sporting events. Our lawsuit went to the Kentucky Supreme Court in October. We’ve had to contend with limited access to university officials, being rerouted through public relations for simple requests. Like all Kentucky journalists, we’ve dealt with delayed open records responses due to a clause that gives public agencies an additional seven days to fill a request during a state of emergency – which we’ve been in for almost a year.

When I say journalism against all odds I mean that I wake up every day knowing I will never cross everything off my to-do list, which right now is two pages long. I mean that sometimes when I’m in Zoom for class I am also dialed into court proceedings relevant to our coverage. I mean that one week I drove 30 minutes into town so I could have enough signal to send the pages to the printer when the power was out at my house. Sometimes I don’t do my homework because I stayed up until 4 a.m. finishing articles. On my computer there is a document listing all the steps the paper should take if campus shuts down again. I mean that I lived every article we published between March 6 and March 13, 2020. I had to come back to campus to move belongings out of my dorm. I had to find a way to get home unexpectedly. I had to do classes in the yard sometimes because my parents were on conference calls in the kitchen. I had to learn how to live with the feeling that I would be the death of someone I loved. So did you. So did everyone. Every against-the-odds moment I’ve listed here, that’s just me. I am one person on the staff of the Kentucky Kernel. The odds we’ve overcome as a paper have been not insignificant; the challenges we have overcome personally have been monumental. But I misspeak, to say that we have overcome them. We battle them, daily. That is the mark of the student press. To push forward, against struggle, against disrespect, against institutions that do not wish to see us succeed, against the mistaken idea that we are not qualified, important or powerful. It is at times an impossible mission and one that will never be finished. But the work happens every day, not just on Student Press Freedom Day. It will happen tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, and many days it will be invisible, but student journalists will persist. I’m honored to be one of them.