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Taking off 'American glasses': Journalist Lisa Ling speaks at MSU about her reporting experiences at home, abroad

 

Journalist and author Lisa Ling speaks to a room full of listeners at Mississippi State University's Bettersworth Auditorium Monday. Ling talked about her 25 years of reporting from all over the world, from Afghanistan and Iran to China and North Korea.

Journalist and author Lisa Ling speaks to a room full of listeners at Mississippi State University's Bettersworth Auditorium Monday. Ling talked about her 25 years of reporting from all over the world, from Afghanistan and Iran to China and North Korea. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Isabelle Altman

 

 

When Lisa Ling stepped off an airplane in Afghanistan for the first time in 1997, the 21-year-old American journalist reporting for Channel One News was greeted by a throng of boys who appeared half her age, all of them holding guns bigger than they were. 

 

The boys didn't know how old they were, Ling's guide told her -- but they knew how to operate a bazooka. 

 

"It became so clear to me that day after day after day, hour after hour, those boys would just sit there and wait for the opportunity to fire off those weapons," Ling said. "It was a scene that continued to be etched in my mind, particularly as I came back to the United States and I tried to engage my friends and my colleagues about what I'd just seen in Afghanistan, and no one had any clue that this scene existed in the world." 

 

It was with this image that Ling opened her talk to a full Bettersworth Auditorium in Mississippi State University's Lee Hall Monday night. Ling, now an internationally renowned journalist, was invited to speak as part of the university's global lecture series.  

 

For just more than an hour, Ling talked about her experiences reporting from all over the world over the last 25 years. She talked about how Afghans whispered to her in the marketplace that the Taliban were taking their music and their freedom; reminisced about discussing Metallica and democracy with Iranian children in a park outside Tehran, only a few minutes after one of the state's Morality Police had pushed Ling against a wall and forcibly wiped the lip gloss off her lips; remembered discussions she'd had with "devastated" Chinese mothers about giving up their daughters during China's one-child policy; and of course told the story of how she'd entered North Korea disguised as a doctor with a team of cataract surgeons so she could report from inside the most controlled state in the world. 

 

"One of the reasons why I love what I do so much is that I go into every story that I report on with a very defined set of preconceived ideas about what the country's going to be like, what the people are going to be like, what the food is going to taste like," Ling said. "I think as human beings we are predisposed to having those preconceived ideas. But what I always realize as soon as I hit the ground is that no story is so black and white, that there are always so many shades of gray." 

 

She encouraged the students listening to take off their "American glasses," as she put it, and find ways to leave their comfort zone and understand other people and cultures.  

 

But Ling's talk also incorporated what she's covered in the United States as well -- including a swelling prison population of mothers and African-American men serving time for nonviolent offenses and an unseen sex trafficking industry wherein pimps entice young girls into forced prostitution. 

 

She said she tries to have the mindset that whatever story she's reporting on at the time is the most important story in the world to her in that moment, but those are two issues that have stood out to her and which she is still passionate about. 

 

"Not all the stories I have done explore human suffering," she said later during a question answer session. "But certainly many have. ... The main thing that really keeps me going is, every time I experience the darkest aspect of humanity, I almost always experience the light and brightness. In the same experience, often. When I am exploring a culture or a subject matter that is devastating, I will always meet people who will have devoted their lives to trying to combat that. And to the extent that I can get those messages and stories told, that's the reason to keep going."

 

 

 

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