I went out to cover a story about Dianne Wilkerson this evening. It took place at Morning Star Baptist Church. In school, we talk about gag rules that prevent journalists from doing their job to the fullest extent. Until today, those were just concepts to me in a text book, something to be read and memorized for a test or final paper later.
At most, people would ask to see a copy of whatever I had written after it was presented to my editor for deadline. Tonight, the reality of someone trying to limit my ability to do my job presented itself fully. I was initially nonplussed about having to cover the event, but once it became clear that I might not be welcome, I suddenly found myself much more interested in trying to get the complete story.
I arrived at the church at 4 p.m. when the function was slated to start. Upon arrival, I realized that this was not an event to honor Wilkerson, but an evening church service to show support for her as she dealt with her legal troubles. I immediately ran into the issue of people being more than willing the chat with me about Wilkerson and the service, but no one would speak to me for my story.
I should have known then that something was up.
Rev. Borders began the service by asking any members of the media to join him in the lobby of the church. I was the only one to get up and leave with him. Once in the lobby Rev. Borders explained that he did not want this service, meant to show support for Wilkerson, to be exploited and used in conjunction with other news about her legal issues.
The gathered ushers and Rev. as well as a media consultant decided that I would be allowed to stay because the "Banner has been supportive in the past." I guess that's cool, but there is an inherent assumption that I'm not going to write something negative about Wilkerson. Now, to be fair, I was not sent to the event to pester and badger anyone, especially Wilkerson, but I'd like the freedom to cover the event and ask questions of anyone present.
As it turned out, by walking out of the sanctuary was an effective way to brand myself as media and make sure that no one talked to me, not even polite chatter. I did like how Wilkerson politely declined to comment. I walked up to where she was sitting in the front row and introduced myself to her. She smiled, shook my hand and said "no comment, thank you."
It was so polite I had to put it in my story. All I ended up doing was quoting the people who spoke during the service. My quotes were a bit dry but that's what you get when no one in the audience will talk to you.
I never thought I would have to deal with prior restraint and gag laws outside of a class room, but I guess the reason we talk about them is because they exist and there will be situations where we will have to find ways around them, if possible.