Simply put, I wish there was more people like Lisa Ling in the world. A journalist to the core, Lisa is also a wife, mother, advocate, producer, and an ambitious storyteller who is committed to sharing the voices of those who are far too often underrepresented.
Working in television for nearly two decades, Lisa started out at 16 years old as a host on “Scratch,” a nationally syndicated teen magazine show. By 18, she was a Channel One reporter and anchor, and soon to be war correspondent, visiting violent areas around the world like Iraq and Afghanistan. Reporting from over 24 countries, she has worked with countless networks from ABC News as a “Nightline” correspondent, to the co-host of ABC Daytime’s hit show, “The View.” Lisa has even worked with the queen of media herself, as a correspondent for “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Having reported on a wide range of topics from addiction, to polygamy, and child trafficking, it’s no surprise her latest series on CNN, “This is Life,” is now in its fourth season. In addition to covering ground breaking issues such as consent, gun laws, and religion in America, she dives into one of our most controversial taboos in her new CNN Digital Series, “This is Sex.”
Lisa spoke with Her Agenda on what it takes to produce her latest series, how she represents women wherever she goes, and how she helps to shed light on all the secrets women routinely hold inside.
Her Agenda: Aside from, “This is Life,” and all of your previous work, you’ve covered such a big range of topics from addiction to war to polygamy. How do you find such unique stories, and what is your process in working with CNN to make them happen and come to life?
Lisa Ling: I consider myself a pretty voracious consumer of information. I try to read as much as possible and get physical, actual, newspapers sent to my house. But of course I’m always scouring the web as well. I work with a production company based in Brooklyn and together we will put together these extensive lists of topics.
Usually the criteria is pretty simple. It’s do we think there is a compelling, relatable story there and could we tell this story better than anyone else, and with our own kind of twist. We will put that list together and send it to CNN, and they will ultimately green light the eight episodes we will set off to do. Some of the things we’ve covered also have come from everyday people. A number of our episodes have come out that way as well.
Her Agenda: As a journalist, when you enter different environments that not only are dangerous, but more or less are can be very unwelcoming to women, how do you prepare yourself for these interviews and enter these situations?
Lisa Ling: It’s funny you say that because back in the day when I would travel to countries where women are more repressed – whenever I would engage with people, they would end up talking to my driver who would typically be a man or my camera man. Sort of directing all of their questions or inquiries to them, when I would be the one calling the shots. Or if I had a female producer, they would just end up talking to the driver or camera man.
But what I do try to do as a woman is just raise the level of my voice a little bit higher and loudly, and make it known that I or my producer are the ones calling the shots.It’s a delicate dance of being respectful, yet asserting your authority.
Her Agenda: You have been doing this for years, but I think one of the reasons why you are so successful is because when you are interviewing different people, you form a connection with them where they can build trust in you, but you are still are able to ask them the hard hitting questions. How do you go home after that? How do you take care of yourself when you are also in the thick of speaking with people who are dealing with extremely rough circumstances?
Lisa Ling: I’m not going to lie. There have been many occasions, where I have come home completely a wreck or after an interview I’ve gone to my hotel room and just cried myself to sleep. We do get people to tell us very deeply, personal things and sometimes they are very dark things as well. I’m lucky I have a team with me in the field. I’m not a solo journalist on my own. I have a team who helps me process it. When we are out in the field, we are usually a team of five people. All we talk about, all we think about 24/7 is the story. We are constantly thinking about how we are putting the story together but we are also sounding boards for each other when we do experience things that are emotionally difficult.
I try to maintain communication with people that we feature on my show. I give everyone my cell phone number, because I want them to know we are not the kind of crew who will go in, get their story, and leave. Because people have shared such deeply, personal information with me I want them to know that if they ever want to talk it through that I’m here. For us, it’s a matter of making sure we tell people’s stories responsibly.
Her Agenda: Having worked with different networks and organizations, are there any strategies you’ve learned to find and tell the stories that don’t always make the headlines?
Lisa Ling: That is a challenging question because I will always talk about the importance of journalism and long form storytelling, but if my show didn’t rate, it wouldn’t be on the air. At a certain point, we all are reliant on this rating system for our survival. So I will always push to tell certain kind of stories, but at the end of the day if those kind of stories don’t get numbers then the likelihood of me continuing to do them is slim.
We have been really, really lucky that we have been able to produce this show for as long as we have, but that doesn’t get lost on us for a moment. I think, when you are producing television, you want to be as informative as possible but it also has to be entertaining. It has to be the kind of thing when people are coming home from work want to sit down and watch. So, it is trying to strike that balance between being really substantive and important, and being something that is ultimately just watchable.
Her Agenda: It does seem like it is a successful balance because even if you can get someone in to watch the show, the person watching might not even realize how impacted they are by the person’s story they are hearing.
Lisa Ling: That is exactly right. That is one of our goals, that we are able to provide an experience for our viewers that is just fascinating as anything else on TV but they come away a little bit smarter or empowered as a result. But the takeaway value though, is something that is really important to me. I have been lucky that I can produce shows that I’m proud of. We work in an industry that is like a factory, and it is reliant on this rating system. I’ve been lucky that my audience has for the most part, come to trust me enough, that they’ll allow me to take them to experience things.
Her Agenda: You’ve built your own reputation by doing that. Having started working in television when you were 16 years old, how have you been able to consistently adapt to all the different changes that have happened in the industry whether through social media or different types of content?
Lisa Ling: For me, I’ve just trusted my instincts. When I left “The View” years ago, many people thought I was crazy because it was a hit daytime talk show that had a proven track record, and I left to go to the National Geographic channel, which was a brand new cable channel at the time. You do at a certain point, have to trust your instincts when you know what your end goal is.
As far as the change in media, it’s scary! I was at a conference a couple of months ago about digital, and I left there feeling this is scary because I have spent my entire career working in a traditional media world. Now what is going on is so different and it’s based on hits and clicks. It is definitely very, very intimidating but all I can do is learn as much as I can about the new media and not allow myself to be totally pigeonholed. I have every intention of trying to figure out how I can expand my digital footprint, because that is the future.
Her Agenda: “This Is Life” started in 2014, but in 2010 you co-founded a website called, “The Secret Society Of Women.” Where did that idea evolve from?
Lisa Ling: I experienced a couple of miscarriages before my first child was born and at the time, it was something that people didn’t really talk about much. Things have changed a lot since then, but for me as someone with a type-A personality, I felt like I was such a failure. I’ve been able to accomplish a lot, but somehow I failed this and it really affected me. As I started to engage my friends about it, I realized how pervasive it is. It made me think about how many things women keep inside of them. How many secrets we keep because we are so afraid of what people might think or we just don’t want people to know about. A partner and I created this forum for women to be able to post anonymously and receive feedback or advice anonymously as well.
Her Agenda: Is there a motto or special quote that motivates you?
Lisa Ling: Whenever I am feeling kind of down on myself for any number of reasons whether it is a work related reason or a relationship issue, a shrink once said to me, “You’re a catch, act like one.” I like that. It is a little simple thing but I use is a lot.
[Editor's note: This interview published on November 13, 2017. It has been edited for length and clarity.]