Trust through truth: Alum tackles tough metro assignments by building relationships
As Kansas City mayor Quinton Lucas called for a vote, Zac Summers ’11 leaned forward in his seat on the 26th-floor chamber at City Hall. The WDAF FOX4 reporter had a council meeting agenda littered with notes in one hand and microphone in the other. He knew the significance of the vote.
One by one, all 10 council members gave an “aye” as citizens with Pride flags broke out in jubilee. On that November 14 afternoon, Kansas City became the second Missouri city to ban conversion therapy on LGBTQ minors.
As citizens exited, so too did Summers—not to partake in the celebration but to capture it. He orchestrated powerful interviews with LGBTQ Kansas Citians traumatized as youths from attempted conversion therapy.
“Our industry, we are literally documenting history, and it’s cool. Part of your job as a journalist is to just be a human being,” said Summers, who always seeks a human element to make his stories relatable to viewers. Reaching them is increasingly difficult in an era where journalists are accused of fabricating news and are too often seen as society’s enemy versus watchdog.
While at election coverage in November, a citizen confronted Summers as a “fake news” reporter. Summers delivered a strong yet respectful retort. “I’m a local reporter who lives and works in this community, and that’s where my allegiance lies,” he said. “I literally go into work trying to tell the best and most informed story so you know what is happening in our community.”
Such encounters reinforce to Summers that the news industry is under a constant microscope. That fact has only strengthened his determination to build trust with his people skills and commitment to bettering his community through fair and balanced storytelling of news that ranges from horrific to heartwarming.
Summers was on the July 2018 scene in Branson, Missouri, after a duck boat got swept under during a storm at Table Rock Lake, killing 17 people on board. He has helped tenants in deplorable conditions by exposing landlords. He has also knocked on doors asking family members to speak on losing a loved one in traumatic incidents, including homicides.
Always observant, Summers also captures everyday citizens. He saw on Facebook a woman’s surveillance video post showing a sanitation worker walking her 88-year old mother up the driveway. Summers identified the employee (as Billy Shelby) and featured the Good Samaritan.
“First and foremost, he’s a professional,” Fox 4 Executive Producer Polly Van Doren said. “He conducts himself eloquently. He commands respect when he walks into a scene or someone’s living room. He can handle hard news because he is smart, he thinks well on his feet, and he asks tough questions.”
It’s a skill Summers began to hone while at Illinois State, where he studied broadcast journalism and gained confidence interacting with others as a member of Glee Club, Alpha Tau Omega, an Office of Admissions’ tour guide, and a student reporter at TV-10. His personality even then allowed sources to feel comfortable speaking to him and sharing their experiences.
“It’s got to be a huge majority of people he’s left feeling like ‘Wow, that young man cared. He took some time to tell my story, and I’m better off because of it,’” said TV-10 News Director Laura Trendle Polus, who mentored Summers as an undergraduate.
He came to ISU from his suburban St. Louis childhood home in Alton. The second youngest of 11 siblings, learning to co-exist in that environment taught him how to be congenial. “I sometimes think growing up with 11 different personalities helped me figure out how to navigate different people and how to approach different people,” he said. “You can’t approach everybody the same.”
There wasn’t a cable presence in that home, but the family did watch the news on a nightly basis. Summers was fascinated by the stories. The first one he remembers vividly was the Waco Siege of 1993. Then came 9/11. A seventh-grader at the time, Summers saw how reporters recounted details and shared countless personal stories on that darkest of September days.
Not long after that he thought about broadcast journalism as a career. To pursue that dream, Summers had to do something nobody in his family had done: Graduate college. He arrived at ISU determined to maximize learning opportunities.
Unable as a freshman to join TV-10, Summers worked at the student radio station, WZND, his first year. He did news cut-ins before moving on to deejaying under the alias DJ Summertime. “It was cheesy looking back on it, but it was fun,” Summers said with a laugh.
WZND helped Summers learn how to handle broadcast pressures such as going live, but his heart always belonged to television news. He knows the hands-on experience at TV-10 prepared him to launch his career.
Summers didn’t shy away from tough stories even then. His instincts took over as he made sure there was coverage of the October 2011 death of woman who fell from Watterson Towers, as well as a Delta Sigma Phi house fire that same year. Those were some of the first times he recalled thinking like a reporter in “the real world.”
“That’s the beauty about television,” he said. “The further you go up in this industry, you either rise to the occasion or you are going to sink.” He has been climbing higher since becoming the first in his family to cross the collegiate commencement stage.
Graduating fulfilled a lifelong mission for his mother, Vallerie, and motivated Summers to keep moving forward. “I grew up in a family where we didn’t have a lot,” he said. “I guess I have just always had this drive to be better than my circumstances that I was born into.”
Summers started his television reporting at a station in the Tri-Cities region in south central Washington before moving to College Station, Texas. In 2017, he got his shot in one of the country’s most rapidly growing metro areas: Kansas City, Missouri. The bigger market brings a wider range of stories, with Summers covering NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes’ charity event one evening and a fatal shooting the next. Yet his approach to storytelling hasn’t changed since his days at ISU.
“I think journalism is the same no matter what market you are in. It’s just the higher you go, the stakes are higher because you don’t have room to make mistakes,” said Summers, who knows that success starts with relationship building. As a result, he has a network of sources in the metropolitan area of approximately two million.
In his beginning stages on the job, Summers has developed relationships and gained such a strong reputation that people have felt comfortable speaking to him during their most vulnerable moments. He’s shone light on everyday heroes. He’s given a voice to the voiceless. He has proven to be anything but fake.
Follow Zac Summers on Twitter @ZacOnTV.