Lisa Ling wasn’t exposed to a whole lot when she was growing up just outside of Sacramento, California. “To be honest with you, I grew up in a community that was not very diverse. There were probably five Asian kids in my whole school, and two had the same last name as me and my sister,” Ling says.
Much of the time she spent at home was in front of the television. “TV was, in many ways, my constant babysitter. It was just on in our house all the time,” she says. But while most kids would simply zone out in front of the tube, Ling appreciated the power of television and was convinced it could be used as a means to insert herself into the wider world and find success. “As a kid who came from a broken family–my parents got a divorce when I was 7–I wanted to be on TV because I thought if I could be on TV, I could have a better life one day.”
Ling was only 16 when she got her first big break as the host of Scratch, a nationally syndicated news magazine aimed at teenagers, and two years later she became a reporter at Channel One News, which was piped into middle school and high school classrooms all over the country. By the time she was 25, Ling was Channel One’s war correspondent. “That show sent me to so many different countries. I probably traveled the world a couple times over in my late teens, early twenties, and it just opened my eyes to all the fascinating stories out there, the fascinating world that we live in,” she says, “and it propelled me to want to tell stories.”
More than 20 years later, Ling still buzzes with the enthusiasm she had for storytelling at the start of her career, and these days, she is exploring all kinds of unusual subcultures through her CNN documentary series This Is Life with Lisa Ling produced by part2 pictures. “I’ve found an interesting niche that I really love,” says Ling, who also reported on people outside the mainstream in Our America with Lisa Ling, another part2 pictures-produced series which ran for five seasons on OWN from 2011 to 2014.
Recent episodes of This Is Life with Lisa Ling have found her meeting sugar daddies who pay for the company they keep, Mormons struggling with drug addiction and the now adult progeny of a genius sperm bank. “I think you can categorize them as human interest stories. They’re explorations of the worlds within our world, and while they’re not breaking news, they’re no less journalistic than anything else on CNN,” says Ling, who never passes judgment on her subjects. She is simply more interested in learning how different people live. “I find there is tremendous value in knowing about each other, and I feel like, personally, I’ve become smarter and more evolved and more well-versed as a result of having these kinds of experiences.”
Here, Ling, who has carved out a career in journalism that she finds fulfilling, talks to Co.Create about some of her best and worst career moves over the years and offers advice to aspiring journalists on everything from the benefits of travel to how to do interviews.
Not everyone is going to get hired as a global reporter at 18, but young people who want to become journalists can still travel, and they should. “The best advice I can give young people is travel if you can because travel, to me, is a game-changer,” Ling says. “If you are able to travel, it just makes you more marketable at the end of the day. You’re more marketable because you will be able to expand the conversation in ways someone who is not well-traveled wouldn’t be able to. Travel ignites curiosity, and that’s something I think we could all use a lot more of in media.”
If you can immerse yourself in another culture, that’s even better. While Ling has earned a lot of stamps in her passports over the years, she has never actually lived outside of the United States. “My biggest regret still to this day is not living overseas for more than a year in my youth when I was in high school or in college,” Ling says. “I think would have really benefited from literally being immersed in another world for about a year.”
In a business where so many people are trying to be who they think they should be, Ling seems refreshingly natural. “I think we were lucky at Channel One because what they wanted out of us was for us to just be ourselves,” Ling says. “They wanted the antithesis of the stereotypical newsroom. They wanted relatable people who people felt they could talk to. That was the kind of style that Channel One championed–just being yourself.”
Ling’s CNN colleague Anderson Cooper has a similar, natural style, and he, too, honed his skills at Channel One as a young journalist. “Interestingly enough, when Anderson and I were at Channel One there was a producer who had a very big impact on both of our lives and our careers. His name is Mitchell Koss, and he also worked closely with Serena Altschul, who went to MTV and who worked with my sister (Laura Ling), and he was a mentor to all of us. I think that’s interesting because was hugely supportive of the kind of style that Anderson and I employed in the field and never tried to mold us into anything but rather encouraged us to be our raw selves.”
After she had been with Channel One for seven years, Ling thought it was time to move on, and she began talking to various television networks. At first glance, it seemed like the next logical step to join a bigger television network, but Ling soon realized that at her age–she was 26 at the time–she would be the low man on the totem pole so to speak, which meant it was unlikely she would be able to do the kinds of provocative, experiential reporting she had been given the freedom to do at Channel One.
So she decided to veer off course a bit. As it just so happens, ABC’s daytime talk show The View was holding auditions for a new co-host, and Ling decided to go for it. Why go from war correspondent to daytime TV talk show host? “When The View came along I thought it would be a really good opportunity to raise my profile enough that I could one day do the kind of work that I had been doing at Channel One on a wider scale,” Ling says.
Actually, upon reflection, Ling isn’t so sure she was fully aware of the benefits of the move she was making at the time. “I wasn’t thinking about it this way at the time,” she muses, “but I think I was subconsciously trying to build a brand around this kind of storytelling.”
Ling won the gig on The View, and when she left after a few years, she was more of a known quantity and went back to doing the experiential storytelling work she was so passionate about as the first female host of National Geographic Explorer. She went on to work as a special correspondent for The Oprah Winfrey Show, hosted Our America with Lisa Ling, and, more recently, This Is Life with Lisa Ling, which debuted on CNN this past September.
All this talk about creating a brand aside, Ling doesn’t call a lot of attention to herself when she is reporting a story. Rather, she aims to serve as a conduit through which people’s stories are told. “It is very, very important to me to never be the show,” Ling says. “I mean, there are certainly times where I may offer my insight or even talk about something that I’ve experienced. That’s something that we are actually doing more for This Is Life than I’ve ever done before, but I’m adamant that this isn’t my show. I don’t even refer to it as my show. I call it our show, and when I talk about our show, I mean all the producers, the teams that work on it.”
If there is one thing that sets Ling apart from many other journalists, it is her conversational style of interviewing, which helps people open up. “I don’t ever write questions when I do interviews because I really want the interview to be like conversation,” she says, explaining, “When you have a conversation with people naturally things will come out in the course of that very natural, organic conversation that will always surprise you because people don’t feel like they are being interrogated. They don’t feel like you’re trying to pin them against the wall. They feel like you’re really listening to them, and I truly believe everybody wants to be heard, and everybody does have a story to tell, and so I try to give everyone that opportunity.”
Not every young journalist can freestyle in this way, though–might a newbie be better off having at least a few key questions written down? “That’s a great question. I always have a number of key questions in my arsenal. They may not be written down, but I always do,” Ling says, pointing out that she has the luxury of time given that she does longer-form pieces whereas a journalist working on shorter stories might need to tell a story in three minutes. “In their defense, it’s really important for them to get the goods. So it is very different, but even when I was doing breaking news at Channel One, I still tried really hard to have more of a conversational approach to my interviews.”
Ling comes across as empathetic on screen, and it doesn’t seem like an act. “I give everyone my cell phone number, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ll be with my husband and have to leave the dinner table because I have a teenage prostitute on the phone who needs to talk or needs help. These people by sharing with our show and sharing with me, they are taking a huge risk. They are exposing vulnerabilities that I don’t know I could share, and there’s a responsibility attached to that,” Ling says. “I’m not someone who can just walk away after someone has just spilled their guts and never talk to them again. That’s something I just could never do. Certainly, it’s impossible to stay in touch with everyone, but I stay in touch with a surprising number of people that I’ve profiled.”
She also counts on her teams for emotional support. “That’s the reason why our teams are hand-picked. Everyone on our teams is very sensitive and compassionate, and they get as involved–sometimes even more so–than I do. So we spend a lot of time just talking through how we’re feeling about things. We’ve all cried together at certain points. We’ve all had really late nights just sort of staring at walls in the same room because of something that we experienced. But it really helps for me to be able to have these incredible teams working on these projects. I honestly don’t think I could do this just on my own. It would be too emotionally taxing.”
Asked if she has made any mistakes in her career, Ling admits that she regrets hosting all those Oscar and Golden Globe pre-shows she did about seven or eight years ago. She is a pop culture junkie but never enjoyed interviewing celebrities on the red carpet. “I just felt so uncomfortable. I’m not good at it. I could sit on a couch and have a conversation with George Clooney, but on a red carpet, I feel uncomfortable,” she says. “There are so many people who love doing it and do it really well but because it was the Oscars asking me, I felt like I had to do it. And every time I felt like I compromised myself. It didn’t feel good, and I finally got to the point where I just said to myself, ‘I need to stop doing that because I feel like I have to.’ ”
She also says it was hard to turn down the paychecks. “I think as someone who grew up without a lot of money, you always think the bottom is going to be pulled out from under you at some point, especially doing this kind of work,” Ling says. “I think there’s always a little bit of fear in me that, like, ‘You can’t turn things down!’ But I have gotten to a place where I don’t want–and maybe you can chalk this up to age a little bit–to do something that I would like to not have to do.”