Kelly Gerlach

KELLY GERLACH

Guest Columnist

This job — reporting the news — at times seems like the coolest gig on the planet. 

I walk in and out of the office at all hours of the day chasing leads and setting up appointments. On a sunny spring day with a camera in my hand, I can find many work-related reasons to leave the building and soak up the sunlight.

I meet new people like you, make new friends, learn how people and business work, how our government functions… and sometimes how it doesn’t.

I was born in Jackson County Public Hospital, the same place I’m writing about now as the hospital Board of Trustees prepares to break ground on a new facility in just a couple weeks. I was raised on my dad’s family farm, the same house where he was born and he lived every day (minus six months) of his 67 years.

I went to school for 13 years in Bellevue Schools, attending classes with the same core group of peers all those years. Then I worked at the Bellevue Herald-Leader for more than four months before being transferred to an opening at the Sentinel-Press.

And I choose to look at my world with optimistic, hopeful, compassionate eyes, ever-mindful of the “do unto others” rule.

But at times, disillusionment can heighten and temper the excitement I feel. 

That’s definitely been the case in the last seven weeks as my great crew of co-workers/friends from the Maquoketa Sentinel-Press, The Observer in DeWitt, and the Bellevue Herald-Leader sought to nail down the facts of a legal situation that from a public perception standpoint seems to reek of cronyism and special treatment, perhaps the use of discretion on steroids.

I won’t get into the details of the case — that’s not the point of this column. But it opened my eyes to a system that often is scrutinized less than it should be. 

Growing up in a small town, I was raised to believe members of law enforcement are like Superman — they fight for truth, justice and the American way. They uphold every law, treat everyone equally, and hold themselves to those same standards. We all should.

I never considered their jobs in my quest for potential careers. I couldn’t stomach the danger and uncertainty.

As an aspiring Lois Lane, however, I’m questioning some of those superheroes, their thought processes, their decisions, and their actions. They are fallible because they are human. They are subject to use discretion when they respond to a call. They must make split-second decisions, and we all hope they make the right ones, especially when lives are on the line.

But when they seem to make special allowances that contradict probable cause and common sense, that’s something I can’t overlook. It’s something we — as taxpaying citizens, the community, human beings — can’t ignore. Lady Justice wears a blindfold to protect impartiality; we should not be blindfolded to practices that defy common sense.

Reporting on this situation proved challenging. While I still commend law enforcement officials for putting their lives on the line to ensure our safety, they are not endowed with free reign to give preferential treatment to public officials or an acquaintance compared with how a stranger in the same situation would be treated.

I’ve learned that asking the hard questions is difficult but necessary in a society that craves the transparency it’s been so long denied. And asking those hard questions is rewarding and fulfilling.

I guess you could say I’ve gained more wisdom in the ways of the world.

That’s what happens when we open our minds, expand our horizons, and learn not only from our own experiences but those of others. Sometimes we learn what not to do or what never to do again. Usually we realize the change we immediately recoil from is scary but leads to positive results.

And sometimes we learn that a healthy dose of skepticism mixed with the need to question everything and everyone is vital to creating a more accurate picture of the world we live in. 

Will this affect my objectivity working on similar, or any, articles in the future? No. My job as a journalist is to be fair and objective, personal feelings aside. I approach all stories with the same questions: who, what, when, why, where, and how. And, was everyone treated fair and equally?

We learn how to ask better questions from more sources and temper what we think we know with what the facts truly are.

With luck, we inch a step closer to the people we want to be. 

— Kelly Gerlach is the news editor of the Maquoketa Sentinel-Press.