Liberty Zabala ’12 (Broadcast Journalism) didn’t know it at the time, but the beginning of her career as a journalist started when she was 5 years old.
Zabala observed the work of her father, Larry Zabala Jr., an accomplished newspaper reporter in the Philippines and Los Angeles, and she habitually scanned through the pages of the Los Angeles Times every morning before flipping to the comic section.
Now 27, Zabala has grown to become a two-time Emmy-nominated reporter and weekend weather anchor for NBC 7 San Diego. But this feat may not have been possible without first putting in long hours inside — and outside — the California State University, Northridge Valley View News television station.
“Ask [CSUN Journalism Technician] Lincoln Harrison how many times I spent overnight in the newsroom before he’d tell me to go home,” Zabala said. “Valley View News helped me learn the skills needed to be a multimedia journalist, which meant I had to write, shoot, edit and report in order to create a news story from start to finish. It was a really good experience and gave me the skills to make me successful in my job today.”
If there’s anyone who can testify to Zabala’s devotion to hard work and her craft, it’s Harrison, who has worked in the CSUN Department of Journalism since 2003.
“[Zabala’s] work ethic at CSUN blew off the top of the chart,” Harrison said. “When journalism students want to work as reporters or producers, they typically put together one or two demo reels. Liberty put together reel after reel because she was just driven to do so, and because she generated so much material as she continued with her studies here.”
Zabala quickly developed a lengthy resume during her time at CSUN, interning at Fox News Channel, Fox Sports Net, KABC and the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.
“At CSUN, my strategy was to make sure I had a different internship every semester,” Zabala said. “I was always at a news station or a new internship, which really helped build my connections.”
As her list of internships grew, so did the number of celebrities Zabala interviewed.
The list includes entertainment icon Oprah Winfrey (at her first post-CSUN job at KCOY-TV) boxing champion Manny Pacquiao and politicians Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich. Yet, the most memorable moment of her young career came in April 2016 and focused on someone out of the national spotlight.
“I was covering a military sexual assault workshop [for NBC 7] and met a woman named Evelyn Thomas, who is a Marine and Army National Guard veteran,” Zabala said. “She told me she was raped by her unit in Camp Pendleton because they found out she was gay and wanted to ‘correct her.’ She ended up getting pregnant but lost her baby after the abuse continued. I was so shaken to my core hearing her story.”
Zabala knew she had to tell Thomas’ story. She corralled the station’s anchors and told them that this needed to be on the 6 p.m. news.
Zabala’s coverage of Thomas’ story helped earn her the Vada and Colonel Barney Oldfield National Security Reporting Fellowship, which is awarded by the Radio Television News Directors Association to a reporter or producer in radio or TV news engaged in covering national defense and security.
“I told [Evelyn’s] story and remember thanking her for sharing it with me — and she said, ‘No, thank you. Maybe if people are more aware and see this, they will understand what some veterans are going through, and maybe something will change,’” Zabala said. “To me, that meant more than any celebrity or cool event or perk I can get as a journalist.
“Being able to have an impact in other people’s lives is what keeps me going and what fuels me as a journalist,” she added.
This desire to help others is one reason why, five years after graduating, Zabala gives feedback to current CSUN students who work in the Valley Views News program.
“Whenever I get the chance, I try to watch student packages and send my feedback to [Harrison],” Zabala said. “I was a student, so I know how much it means to them. It’s always been very important to me to point students in the right direction and to pay it forward.”