Lisa Ling: Reporting the Untold Stories of Our America
Lisa Ling once said, “As a journalist, I have seen things that have scarred me. I have interacted with people who have haunted me. I have heard things that have pained me. As a result, I have long struggled with the notion of faith... Whenever I start to blame God for what I encounter in the world, I stop and remind myself that maybe it is I who should be doing more. We get so hung up on the notion of success that we can easily forget about being of service to others.”
Most know journalist Lisa Ling from her work as host of National Geographic Explorer, or as one of the former hosts on ABC’s The View. But her work as a special correspondent on the Oprah Winfrey Network’s show Our America with Lisa Ling most distinguishes the kind of journalism for which I think she would want to be known. Her personal and intimate brand of interviewing sets her apart from many other hard-nosed journalists. This is not to say that Ling does not ask the difficult and probing questions; she does, always. But her style is quieter more thoughtful, and her patience and persistence reap enormous benefits in the kind of answers she draws out from her subjects.
Ling’s career in journalism began early, at age 18, as a reporter and anchor on Channel One News, a news station that almost 9 million high school students can access. Stints as an international reporter in Iran and Afghanistan gave her the strength early on to face crisis situations worldwide and not flinch. In fact, her lack of fear in reporting the tough story has become one of Lisa Ling’s hallmarks.
Case in point: she produced eight documentaries for California PBS, one of which focused on drug trafficking from Columbia to California, during which she and her team searched the jungles of Columbia for cocaine production laboratories. While the story could have been told nearly as completely without the dangerous travel element, it would have lacked the authenticity that Ling demanded. This legitimacy characterizes her journalistic portfolio and gives her credibility with her viewers and within the industry.
Ling’s breadth of assignments is amazing for one so young. She has covered topics ranging from the Kosovo refugee crisis and the war in Afghanistan, to polygamy in America and life on a Native American reservation. She has a way of zeroing in on topics that are often uncomfortable, ignored or painful, and as host of Our America with Lisa Ling, she has not hesitated to probe subjects that few would want to tackle. Always non-judgmental, Ling has a way of putting her interviewees at ease and finding ways to open the questioning into a dialogue that is ultimately honest, revealing, and important.
Though her topics may not always be central in America’s debates, Ling has a way of giving life to a story that might have been marginalized, set aside, or dismissed as irrelevant. She pushes her way into the fringes of the American experience, finding the kernel of a documentary idea where others might not look. Her up-close-and-personal style, with a hand-held camera doing a lot of the work, provides an intensely private glimpse into someone else’s story.
An episode of Our America, “Pray the Gay Away,” provided an ongoing conversation about whether therapy and prayer could be successful in turning a gay person straight. In her later interviews with Alan Chambers, the leader of Exodus International, an ex-gay reparative ministry, Ling’s questions investigated the radical change of heart Chambers experienced after the initial show. In a conversation with him, Ling asked about Chambers’ own sexuality, his identification with familial shame, and his desire to bring families back to a new understanding of each other. Her ability to keep the interview focused, gentle, and honest helped Chambers reveal his own change of heart.
Ling is able to talk with sex offenders who decry their convictions with the same earnestness that she brings to interviews with young women entering convent life, or to swingers living an alternate lifestyle. Her questions are the same ones you or I would ask, given the chance, but they ultimately take their toll on her psyche. Case in point: an episode called “The 3 a.m. Girls,” in which Ling followed underage prostitutes, 13- and 14-year-old girls who could not escape from a lifestyle that found them pimped out, beaten, and hopeless. The story gave her night terrors.
In an interview with the New York Post, Ling said, “It takes a long time to get people to open up, and I’m not a person who can turn my back. I try to keep in touch with them and help them when I can.” Her devotion to her craft goes far beyond what many other journalists experience, and this dedication has helped the Oprah Winfrey Network find success with Our America. Ling’s followers know that, whatever story she is following, they will hear the truth told with dignity and straightforwardness, the hallmarks of Ling’s reporting style. Stevenson University is fortunate to host reporter Lisa Ling in this year’s Baltimore Speakers Series.
Chip Rouse has been teaching writing at Stevenson University since 1984. With an emphasis on journalism, she has served as the moderator of the student newspaper, The Villager, for over two decades and chairs the Department of Business Communication. Her interest in the technology of media has encouraged students who have studied writing here to pursue careers in the newest forms of communication.