When veteran television news anchor Neysa Wilkins goes to speak at schools about her job and the tables are turned on her, she usually fields two common questions from students. How much does she make? And how old is she?
“Not enough, and none of your business!” the long-time evening anchor at NewsChannel 7 in Panama City Beach, Florida, will answer with a chuckle, explaining that people wrongly assume her job is glamorous or that she’s rolling in money. “Unless you’re in a market like Atlanta, you’re not going to make a whole lot of money in television,” she says. “You have to love the job to stay in it.”
Though she has now been a familiar and trusted face in the Panhandle for some three decades, Wilkins never actually intended to be in front of the camera. A graduate of Troy University in Alabama with a dual degree in journalism and music performance, her goal was to work on the creative side of commercials. After dropping off her resume tape at WMGT in Macon, Georgia, she was approached by the news director. She told him she didn’t want to work for him in front of the camera but, a couple of weeks later, he offered her a position reporting weather. Reminded by her father of all her school loans, she took the job.
“I was absolutely horrible!” Wilkins laughs, as she demonstrates how her voice crept higher and higher once the camera was on. “I was so nervous, I couldn’t remember north from south, east from west . . . but they saw something in me and worked with me.”
Wilkins stayed in that position for about four years until the anchor left. She filled that spot for the next seven years before moving to Albany, Georgia—to report weather again. Her next move was to WJHG-TV in Panama City Beach, the dual NBC/CW+ affiliate, where she’s been for the past 28 years.
Telling others’ stories
Every other week, Wilkins and her co-anchor produce a human-interest piece called “Faces and Places of the Panhandle,” for which she has won several awards. “I love getting out and telling people’s stories,” she says.
By way of example: After Hurricane Michael in October 2018, a young girl with Down Syndrome wanted to cheer people up, so she went around with her father and painted smiley faces on the overturned trunks of trees that had been cut down. “That was one of the most inspiring stories I’ve done,” Wilkins recalls. “It made her so happy to do that and no one knew. . . until I exposed them.”
While she gets to cover a lot of positive stories, the widespread public mistrust of mainstream media remains a challenge, and Wilkins is sometimes discouraged by the feedback on social media. “I’ve told my husband that maybe it’s time for me to get out of this business,” she says. “But most of the people know me around here and some will call and say they want me to do a particular story because they trust I’ll do it right.”
She and her co-anchor are committed to reading every script beforehand to make sure it shows no bias. “If it leans one way or another, we will not run it,” she says. “If we could only go back to when families sat down to watch the evening news and it’d be correct, and it would tell both sides of the story and focus on what’s good in America.”
Although her bosses generally don’t assign stories that go against her faith, there are still challenges with being a Christian in mainstream media. “I’ve heard people in my profession say that to believe in God makes you very weak. And I argue with that because, no, to stand up in front of someone like that and say, ‘I’m a Christian and I will not back down’ takes a lot of guts.”
Wilkins pauses and then adds: “The biggest challenge I have is with other Christians telling me how to live my Christian life. Emails, phone calls, you name it. I had one woman get in touch with me and say, ‘We need to have coffee so I can tell you how to be a better wife to your husband.’”
Telling her story
Wilkins’ involvement in the community, undeterred by her critics, has created many opportunities for her to use her gifts. She loves to sing and to emcee events, and she participates in women’s conferences and prison ministry.
“It keeps me grounded because that’s what I know I was put on the earth to do,” she says. “God has opened the doors, through television, to do some of these things because, otherwise, I may not have been able to go into these organizations and talk about the Lord. I’ve always said, ‘God, put me where you can use me and where you want me and always keep my focus on you, not on my circumstances.’”
Wilkins’ hardest days were after her first husband left her. “When he told me, ‘I don’t think we should be married any longer,’ it just hit me like a ton of bricks,” she remembers. “I went into a deep depression. I tried to hide it for as long as I could because I was ashamed—you know, preacher’s kid married to a preacher’s kid—and I just didn’t want the negative connotation with that.”
Her biggest fear was that God could never use her again. But with a speaking engagement at a big women’s conference coming up, she felt God telling her to share her own story. “I didn’t want to,” she admits. “I argued with the Lord, but he kept impressing it on me…”
Wilkins cried her way through that presentation, but it proved powerful. “So many women came up and hugged me and said they were going through the same thing, or their daughters were,” she recalls. “They said we don’t talk about that in the church. And I felt right then that that’s what the Lord was calling me to do, to tell women, ‘We can get through this. God has a plan, and you may not feel like it right now, but you are worthy. You are the King’s daughter.’”
At one women’s conference, after Wilkins gave her testimony, a woman told her that, the night before, she’d been looking through her pills so she could take her life, but she knew God had led her to the conference and she felt encouraged to keep going.
Now 60, Wilkins says she has learned two key things over the years, through her job and her ministry. First, there’s a lot more good in people than bad. “Even though I report most of the bad news, I also see the good side of humanity. I see the good Samaritans.”
Second, she could not live without her faith. “There’s no way I could do this job without my faith to sustain me because there are dark days, in any field, in any position. My relationship with God is the most important thing in my life. That’s one thing my parents always taught me. Keep Him #1 and he will direct everything else in your life.”