A Conversation With Journalists: CNN’s Lisa Ling

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Ling grew up watching television and says she thought it was the best way to a better life. It led her to journalism.

Read my full interview with Lisa Ling at Shondaland. 

In the ongoing Shondaland series Head Turners, we meet interesting women from every facet of life who are crushing it in their careers. From artists and tech mavens to titans of the boardroom, these women are breaking barriers, and they’ll share how you can too.

Lisa Ling is no stranger to the power of storytelling — after all, she grew up on a heavy dose of television in the 1970s and ’80s. Ling is an American journalist with a plethora of Emmy nominations under her belt and tons of experience reporting stories from all over the world. In fact, it’s her storytelling chops that landed her in both the host’s and executive producer’s chairs for nine seasons on the CNN series This Is Life With Lisa Ling, where she gets to dig deep into the human experience.

Ling was born in Sacramento, California. She is the daughter of a Taiwanese mother and a Chinese father, and her parents divorced early in her life. She and her sister, Laura, lived with their father in a small, relatively nondiverse town just outside of the capital city. There, Ling says she grew up on a steady diet of television since her parents were always working. She says she had an idyllic view of television because she thought if she could somehow figure out a way to be a part of the television world, she could build a better life for herself. At the time, one of the only prominent Asian American women on TV was longtime news anchor Connie Chung, and Ling told Shondaland that Chung symbolized all that was “intelligent and graceful and beautiful” and inspired her to pursue a career in broadcast journalism.

At 16, Ling auditioned for a nationally syndicated teen series that was produced by a local news affiliate out of Sacramento and called Scratch. She says that while she was there, she parlayed her audition into an internship with the station, and she tried to learn everything she could about broadcast news from the inside out. Ling graduated high school and got accepted to the University of Southern California. There, she studied broadcast journalism but left USC at age 21 before graduating to work as a reporter for Channel One News. She was one of the youngest reporters ever hired at the network, and she acted as a war correspondent, covering everything from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to the drug wars in South Africa.

Ling traveled the world in her position at Channel One before she went on to audition for a co-host position on ABC’s long-running daytime television talk show The View in 1999. She spent three and a half years there, sitting at the table and holding court with the likes of Barbara Walters, Star Jones, Joy Behar, and many guests. From 2003 to 2010, Ling hosted National Geographic Explorer and contributed as a special correspondent to The Oprah Winfrey Show. In 2008, she was picked by CNN to co-host a special series on climate change, and by 2014, she became a regular contributor to the cable news network, creating and hosting the prime-time show This Is Life With Lisa Ling.

As the show enters its ninth season, which premiered on November 27, Ling took some time to talk to Shondaland about her passion for getting to the heart of stories that highlight the human condition.

ABIGAIL BASSETT: Why did you decide that broadcast journalism was the best way to tell stories you cared about?

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LISA LING: Initially, it started with just wanting to get a job in TV, no matter what it was. When I did start working as a young reporter for Channel One and the world sort of opened itself up to me, that’s when I think I caught the bug for wanting to explore, investigate, and inquire. I didn’t know what journalism really was as a girl when I set out to have a career like Connie Chung’s, but once I got into the world, that’s when I really caught the bug. And it became just this burning passion and desire of mine to want to communicate what I was experiencing to a bigger audience.

lisa ling

Lisa Ling appears in a promotional image for the ninth season of This is Life.–CNN Original Series/Warner Bros. Discovery

AB: You were only 21 when you left USC to take the job that you auditioned for at Channel One. What was the most impactful story you covered there that made you feel like broadcast journalism was the right path for you?

LL: I would say the biggest, most important story, the most pivotal story for me, was when I traveled to Afghanistan at 21 to cover the civil war. And the reason why it was so important for me was because one day I landed in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, which was probably the most foreign-feeling place that I’d ever experienced before, and immediately upon touching down, I was just surrounded by throngs of young boys who were armed to the teeth. It was such a culture shock.

I felt like I was on another planet, and the reason that story became so important for me was because I came back from that experience, and no one in America, no one in my world, had any clue that scene existed in the world, despite the fact that our country was so involved in Afghanistan and may have even been responsible for the arms that those young boys were all strapped with and carrying.

The reason why I still continue to do this kind of work, and I’m as passionate as ever, is because today, you know, America has been engaged in conflict in Afghanistan up until last year. Longer than any conflict in American history. I would venture to guess that the majority of Americans, if you were to go out and ask them if they could identify Afghanistan on a map today, most would have no clue. Most would not be able to tell you, and it just underscores the need for substantive reporting.

AB: Most of what passes for news these days consists of an octobox of paid pundits screaming falsehoods and untruths at one another, vying to outdo one another with extreme comments that they hope will catch fire on social media. How do you continue to work to tell stories of what’s going on around the globe in a real and truthful way without falling prey to that kind of sensationalism?

LL: On so many occasions throughout my tenure working on This Is Life, even though it’s a show that is focused on domestic issues, I have felt like I have been in another country because the worlds I was experiencing were so different from my own. I found that, particularly in the last few years, when we become so isolated from one another, and our media and our social media, by way of algorithms, just push us further and further apart, we cut ourselves off from knowing about different people and different ways of thinking. I think that’s really dangerous. We really try with our show to expand people’s horizons and look at American stories through a more global lens.

Just given the discord and division in our country, this kind of storytelling is more important than ever, and we’re not being offered this kind of storytelling in our media very much. I mean, everything has become so hyper-partisan that we don’t have those opportunities to observe, walk in people’s shoes, and feel things about what our fellow humans are experiencing. We’re in this kind of swipe-and-scroll culture where I think we’ve become really desensitized. And so, I hope that people will continue to take the time to allow themselves to get to know one another better through our show, which can be a vehicle for developing a deeper understanding of our shared humanity.

AB: When you started on this trajectory as a journalist, did you expect it to lead to the kind of storytelling and connection that you do on This Is Life?

LL: No, I mean, first of all, as a girl who always felt very conflicted about my identity, I never felt totally American because I didn’t look like everyone else in my community, nor did I know anything about being from China. You know, the fact that I would be fronting, for almost 10 years, a show about the uniqueness of the American experience still astounds me. I pinch myself that someone who felt so conflicted and, in some ways, felt on the margins would front this kind of a show, but I do think that that’s one of the reasons why I feel like I can relate to everyone that I have interacted with on our show.

So often, I think most of us, irrespective of our skin color, our economic disposition, at some point, we’ve all sort of felt like we’ve been on the margins at one time or another. I think that that is what has kind of allowed me to enter into so many people’s lives and worlds. It’s really been the greatest honor of my life to have been welcomed into so many people’s private spaces.

AB: There’s no question about it; this season of This Is Life tackles some big and difficult stories — everything from reporting on mental health and the unhoused population in Los Angeles to the rescue of abused tigers and the way that we use technology to connect in an increasingly disconnected world. The topics range widely, but the storytelling and even an element of hope remain. How do you remain hopeful in the face of some of the really terrible things you’ve covered, seen, and experienced over the years?

LL: I’m just trying to introduce people to their fellow Americans in a way that goes beneath the surface that goes beyond 140 characters, you know. Like, I really want people to be able to just exist in other people’s shoes in a really tangible way. That isn’t just, you know, spewing partisanship on social media.

We’ve produced over 70 episodes, and no matter how dark the topic or no matter how dark the world, there is always a sense of healing and hope in every episode, and I’m just so proud of that because our lives aren’t limited to darkness. We can always find the light. Sometimes we might need a little help, but it’s always there.

AB: The boundary between the news world and the entertainment world has increasingly become blurred in broadcast journalism. What advice would you give yourself or someone just starting in the space, or with a desire to break out of the social media noise and the brainwashing that’s been happening on those platforms?

LL: The business is so different than it was when I first started, but the advice that I would give is the [impartment] is still the same: We need to start really listening to each other again. And not listening to each other by way of social media. We need to engage and take that time to get to know people, human to human, look people eye to eye, and really be that sponge that wants to absorb as much as we can. That’s not just advice for young journalists, but for everybody now because we’ve just become so isolated.

Leave your comfort zone. You don’t have to leave your country to be able to experience or embed in a community or a world that’s different from yours. Leave your comfort zone. And even if it is uncomfortable, just relish that and know that you’ll never regret doing it because you will walk away not only a smarter person but ultimately a better person for allowing yourself to get to know other communities and other people who are different from you.

Abigail Bassett is an Emmy-winning journalist, writer and producer who covers wellness, tech, business, cars, travel, art and food. Abigail spent more than 10 years as a senior producer at CNN. She’s currently a freelance writer and yoga teacher in Los Angeles.

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Abigail Bassett is a full-time freelance journalist, content creator, and television, video, and podcast host whose work has appeared in publications like TechCrunch, Fast Company, Inc. Magazine, Forbes, Fortune, Motor Trend, Shondaland, Money Magazine, and on CNN. Her passion is telling unique stories that change the way we see, interact with, and relate to the world. She is also a Yoga Alliance Registered 500-hour yoga teacher.

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