"I thought if I could somehow get on TV it would give me a better life,” Lisa Ling told the student assembly. Piled into Benaroya Hall in late February, the teenagers sat rapt for nearly an hour. If you’ve ever tried to hold the attention of high school kids at 10:30 in the morning you can appreciate the accomplishment. Ling talked of growing up in a poor community outside Sacramento watching The Brady Bunch and of how her innate curiosity led her far beyond the sitcom fluff she once idolized. “Try to study as many things as possible. Try to travel—it will transform your perception. If you do it while you’re young, you’re more apt to be adventurous.”
She would know. Now 35, Ling entered broadcast journalism as a teen on a syndicated magazine show called Scratch. She was 18 when she and a newbie named Anderson Cooper reported for a schools-only TV network called Channel One News; at 21 she went with the Red Cross to cover the war in Afghanistan. Five years later she joined the women of ABC’s chat show The View but left to pursue substantive stories: the one-child policy in China, the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, maximum security prisons (where one of the inmates, she recalled, spotted her and yelled out, “Yo! I just saw you on Oprah!”).
In addition to National Geographic Explorer, whose lecture series brought her to Seattle, Ling is a TV correspondent for The Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN’s Planet in Peril: Battlelines (again with Anderson Cooper), and Nightline. This month on Oprah’s show she’ll be reporting from the LA County jail.
Backstage after her lecture she confessed that such harrowing work comes at a cost. “There have been times when I’ve gone to my hotel room and cried for hours,” she said. “But there’s no greater feeling than when you’ve provoked someone to do something. So it’s not too much for me yet.”