How an ABC affiliate station is helping to support people affected by domestic violence
ABC Action News reporters Deiah Riley, Lissette Campos-Perez, Wendy Ryan, and Jamison Uhler. (Photo courtesy of ABC Action News.)
By Jocelyn Howard
The Florida Domestic Violence Hotline operates every day of the year. During six weeks in October, however, the volume of calls jumps by 77%. The reason? A local television station that turns storytelling into advocacy.
Every year since 2009, WFTS TV/ABC Action News – which broadcasts to 12 counties on Florida’s west-central coast – has organized a campaign called Taking Action Against Domestic Violence. During the campaign’s six-week run, WFTS runs public service announcements several times a day explaining how to access the state’s domestic violence hotline.
In addition, the station airs short interviews with local advocates, weekly special reports, and an hour-long ad-free special that serves as the campaign’s centerpiece. (The special airs tonight — Wednesday, Oct. 22.)
The campaign’s mission is “to empower victims to break the cycle of abuse; raise awareness of local domestic violence centers; and educate the public on the warning signs of domestic violence & dating abuse,” according to WFTS’ website.
It’s common for news stations to run a feature or two about domestic violence during October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. But the depth of WFTS’ outreach is unusual, and the prospect was enough to attract the campaign’s lead reporter back to television news.
Lissette Campos-Perez, director of community affairs for the station, was on her fourth year of a hiatus from television when then-news director Rich Pegram asked her to run the campaign.
Though the campaign now involves partnerships with regional domestic violence shelters and several corporate sponsors, it wasn’t easy to get the community on board.
“The first year was like pulling teeth,” Campos-Perez remembers. Shelters were skeptical about the news station’s motive and ability to safely publicize stories about such a sensitive issue.
“We were asking them to interview advocates on air, and to help identify survivors who were in a good place so they could be role models,” Campos said. “The shelters were scared – what if ABC put a survivor in danger?”
Campos-Perez found success after reaching out to the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence (FCDV), which runs the state’s hotline: now a key part of the campaign’s awareness message. With FCDV’s support, all 10 state-certified shelters in ABC’s 12-county catchment area eventually agreed to participate.
According to the National Association of Broadcasters, which recognized the station with its 2013 Service to Community Award, this partnership between a media organization and a domestic violence coalition is the first of its kind.
Despite the importance of endorsement from local shelters, running a campaign of this size requires both financial and moral support.
The project is expensive because PSAs and special reports take up airtime usually filled by advertisements. WFTS solved this problem by recruiting several corporate sponsors, including Verizon Wireless, Allstate, and Tampa’s Sykes Enterprises.
The station is also partnering with local marketing firm OrangeTheory – Fresh Ideas in the Get2Zero effort, which is aimed at raising money for local shelters through community outreach. The firm will staff the campaign’s first-ever fundraising telethon later this month.
Like the domestic violence shelters, the newsroom didn’t initially embrace the project. During the project’s third year, however, Campos-Perez observed a sea change: “our employees went from being aware to being advocates.”
Campos-Perez says that employees now volunteer to participate in community events on their own time out of passion to the cause. She recognizes their influence as public figures in Tampa Bay and says the novelty of meeting the weather forecaster or the Action News team can be a big draw for local events.
Campos-Perez stresses that all reporters, even those without face recognition or the opportunity to make local appearances, have the opportunity to promote positive change.
She encourages journalists to find a way to highlight good deeds, even if the main focus of the story is a crime, for example. This tactic not only makes viewers’ experience more positive but often results in more effective reporting as well.
“These are the stories that people remember and that we [as reporters] remember years later,” she says.
Six years into the campaign, Campos-Perez has four huge binders filled with letters, thank-you notes, and emails from community members. In addition to the nearly 80% increase in call volume to the Florida hotline during ABC’s campaign, the station has raised more than half a million dollars for local domestic violence shelters since 2009.
Every year, Campos-Perez receives calls from viewers who want to make sure the campaign will continue in years to come. Campos-Perez believes this is because it’s so rare for a news outlet to provide information that not only informs, but also improves the health of the community.
“It’s really the highlight of my career,” she said. “This campaign has reminded me that storytelling and words are powerful.”