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News 6′s ‘Driving Change’ initiative leads to national community service award

WKMG wins prestigious broadcasting award for second year in a row

After News 6 anchor Matt Austin was hit and seriously injured by a texting driver, the station initiated a relentless multi-faceted, multi-year campaign led by Austin to strengthen Florida’s texting and driving law.

By now, you’ve probably seen some of our “Driving Change” reports.

And we’re pleased to share that WKMG-TV has been awarded the Service to Community Award for Television in the Large Market category during the 2020 Celebration of Service to America Awards program.

Hosted by the National Association of Broadcasters Leadership Foundation, the Service to America Awards recognize outstanding community service by local broadcasters. The announcement was made Saturday night Aug. 22 during the NABLF Celebration of Service to America Award ceremony hosted by broadcast journalist and television host Tamron Hall. WKMG was presented the award by television host and actor Mario Lopez and thanked for their work in a speech by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

“Over the past year, America’s local radio and television stations have demonstrated unparalleled devotion to helping families and communities in need,” NAB Leadership Foundation President Michelle Duke said. “We are pleased to honor these exceptional stations and to celebrate this year’s winners with viewers and listeners during the first-ever broadcast of the Service to America Awards.”

News 6 was honored with this coveted award for their three-year commitment to changing the texting and driving law in the state of Florida from a primary offense to a secondary offense. When WKMG first began their campaign for change, Florida was only one of four states in the nation in which texting and driving was a secondary offense. As a secondary offense, for a driver to be issued a ticket for texting and driving the offense had to be witnessed by a member of law enforcement. Ultimately WKMG’s efforts resulted in the passage of that new law and many legislators credit WKMG with being instrumental in making it happen. 

In the end, many legislators, including those who were originally against a more robust law, credited WKMG with being a major factor behind its passage.

WKMG’s campaign was born late one Florida night in October of 2016. On his way home from work, News 6 Anchor Matt Austin was hit and seriously injured by a texting driver. The driver admitted to the officer that he was texting, but the driver was allowed to leave the scene without any consequences. While home recuperating from his accident, viewers began asking why Austin was absent from newscasts. It was then he decided to share his story with his loyal viewers. His candid and honest account of what happened opened a flood gate of comments from the community. People began sharing their stories of how texting and driving had affected them. Some stories were similar to Austin’s, while others had more tragic outcomes.

“After the outpouring of stories from our community, we knew we had to do something to change this archaic Florida law,” said WKMG News Director Allison McGinley.

That initiated a campaign WKMG calls Driving Change, a relentless multi-faceted, multi-year campaign led by Matt Austin and WKMG-TV/ClickOrlando.com to strengthen Florida’s texting and driving law.

“While this project began in October of 2016 after the crash, it wasn’t until 2019 we were finally able to help push lawmakers for bipartisan support and passage of the new texting and driving law,” Austin said. “We encountered push back almost at every step, but we never let up. When you can use your voice to save lives, you have no choice but to rise to the occasion. I am very proud that my station allowed us to do just that.”

Here’s more on the community service effort, “Driving Change: Florida’s Texting and Driving Law,” which was the force behind the win.

News 6 gathered stories from viewers, created partnerships with law enforcement and legislators and confronted those lawmakers who were creating roadblocks to a piece of legislation designed to save lives on Florida’s roadways.

After three years of work, on July 1, 2019, those efforts resulted in a new law, making texting and driving a primary offense. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in October 2019.

“Matt Austin and a team of more than half a dozen journalists, both television and digital, were consistently dedicated to this cause – with monthly and sometimes weekly stories,” Vice President and General Manager Jeff Hoffman said. “Their hours of dedication, driving across the state of Florida to confront lawmakers and share the stories of how our community has been affected by this ineffective law speaks volumes about who we are as a local news station. Working to better and save lives of those who live in our community is the very essence of what our brand Getting Results means and who WKMG is a station.”

This is the second year that WKMG News 6 has won the Service to Community Award. Last year, WKMG TV was honored with this award for their work to change Florida law to allow first responders suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to get the benefits they deserved.