SOS. A cry for help from someone in danger. Philadelphia’s WTXF, a Fox-owned station that brands itself as FOX 29, has signaled its own SOS to bring awareness and try to find answers to a growing problem in its community. It’s a commitment to a single subject and to solutions-based reporting that is taking the newsroom into new territory.
The initiative is called Save Our Streets, a community-focused, station-wide project that engages with residents, public officials, and even ex-offenders to try to resolve the alarming increase in gun violence in Philadelphia and the surrounding area. “‘Save Our Streets’ is not just a title that we’ve given to ‘Let’s look at crime,’” said Jim Driscoll, news director at FOX 29. “When we started discussing it, we didn’t want to just start shining a light on what was going on in our town. We actually said, ‘What can we do as a TV station?’ I think the whole point was, enough is enough.” Driscoll calls it a “three-pronged approach”: identify the issues, find potential solutions, and challenge community leaders to act, all while allowing people most affected and underrepresented to have a voice.
Save Our Streets Promo
Save Our Streets came about in response to gun violence that has been devastating the Philadelphia area. As of Dec. 8, there have been 524 homicides in Philadelphia, a 13% increase over 2020 that has already surpassed the record of 500 homicides set in 1990. Gun violence has also wounded more than 1,700 people. “Our job is to tell stories through people,” Driscoll said. “The thing that bothers me most about these numbers that they just keep telling us about every single day is for most people, it’s just numbers. We want to attach those numbers to real people.”
The multi-platform project is a sustained effort to report on the effects of gun violence and on potential ways to address the crisis. “The concept [is to use our] platform to not only challenge us but challenge the people who are watching, who sometimes go numb, who sometimes see this as if it’s somebody else’s problem or somebody else’s challenge because it’s in a neighborhood that they may not necessarily be as familiar with,” said Bill Anderson, executive producer and anchor of FOX 29 special projects. “I like the idea that we could actually do something about it, that we could ask hard questions, that we, in theory, could make people uncomfortable, and talk about things that they don’t really always want to talk about if that’s what it takes to try to make some change.”
Anderson and his colleagues are willing to make viewers uncomfortable by highlighting the traumatic experiences people have endured, so they are harder for viewers to ignore. “Those are stories that people stop, [and] they think about for a day or two, and then they move on. We don’t want to move on anymore as a TV station,” Driscoll said.
The station’s leaders say they are committed to Save Our Streets for the long haul, with the goal of generating solutions rather than purely ratings. “The reason we want more people to watch, and more people to be aware is because then they do care,” FOX 29 general manager Dennis Bianchi said. “And maybe they do get engaged in helping us solve the problem, but the only reason that we want to see this gain traction is to help alleviate the problem in some way.” “If we do this the right way, we can help to initiate change, and people watching can be inspired to share their opportunities and ideas that they may not always get a chance to share because they don’t always have a platform,” Anderson said.
Bianchi doesn’t label what the station is doing as advocacy or activism. “I don’t know if there’s a single word for it,” he said. “But it’s our ability and our power to paint pictures to shine a light. It’s just doing the right thing. It’s born in our ability to tell stories and put them on television, but there’s a host of other things that we can do as a station to convene discussion and action around this.” “As local journalists, we’re the last bastion of journalism, where we play everything right down the middle,” Driscoll said. “But when it comes to something like this, I don’t think anybody would fault us for truly being advocates of change when it comes to trying to save lives.”
In addition to regular SOS reports across all dayparts, FOX 29 is producing monthly 30-minute specials that will air three to four times on TV and then will be available on a dedicated web page that includes all SOS content as well as an evolving list of available resources. While his dual role is still being defined, Anderson hosts the SOS specials and goes into communities to report stories and create relationships to give residents a voice. The first special, “Caught In The Crossfire,” aired on Nov. 19 and explored the impact of gun violence on neighborhoods, with a special focus on young adults.
“Caught In The Crossfire” is one of many specials addressing gun violence in the city
Other specials will feature people who have committed crimes to share their motives and community leaders and individuals who are trying to create a positive impact. The station will also air live interviews with crime and violence experts and community leaders that will present facts and potential solutions. In communities most affected by gun violence, reporters have set up microphones and allowed people to voice their concerns and suggest solutions – a so-called “SOS-MOS.” The newsroom will make a compilation of sound bites from residents that will air as SOS-branded vignettes. “People [in the newsroom] have been pitching stories about organizations they have relationships with or communities that they cover who have said to them, ‘You’re here because somebody got shot. Why don’t you come back when we’re trying to do something about the shooting?’ And [our people] say, ‘Okay, I’m back,’” Anderson said. “If we can get into the communities, and those communities let us be part of what they’re trying to solve, then to me, that’s the success,” Driscoll said.
“If we do our job, more people truly will care,” Bianchi said. “More people truly will get engaged, enraged, and hold themselves, community leaders, politicians, [and] District Attorney’s offices accountable.” “Part three of [our three-pronged approach] is to challenge the leaders and to get them to stand up and say, ‘You know what, this is the right thing to do, and you know what, we saw the story on FOX 29 about this group making a difference,’” Driscoll said. “We want to get in there with them and help them. That to me would be success.”
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