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So What Do You Do, Lisa Ling, Host and Executive Producer of Our America?

What the veteran journo learned from Oprah and her sister's North Korea detention

By Richard Horgan - September 12, 2012
Lisa Ling took home a pair of signature awards this summer: The L.A. chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association presented her with the V3 Visibility Award, while non-profit Shelter Partnership honored her Our America episode "The Lost American Dream" for tackling the topics of poverty and homelessness.

Ling's willingness and expert ability to let interview subjects guide the story is what has made the OWN investigative reporting series so compelling. In just two seasons, Our America has put a human face on a wide variety of subjects -- faith healing, swingers, gay Christians, heroin addiction, modern polygamy and more -- that in lesser hands would have quickly devolved into sensationalism. The program has also managed to generate real-world impact: During the August 21 special two-hour season finale, Exodus International leader Alan Chambers admitted that her earlier report about the organization forced him to change his attempts to "de-gay" men and women.

Yet, for a 24-year veteran like Ling, sparking such change is more than just a career coup -- it's a personal mission. "People are feeling very challenged in this downward spiraling economy, and so many feel their voices are not being heard," she explained. "Our program is trying to give a voice to people who would otherwise not have one."

Position: Executive producer and host of OWN's Our America
Resume: Began her career as a correspondent for nationally syndicated teen show Scratch when she was 15. Became senior war correspondent for Channel One News, where she did extensive international reporting. Named co-host for The View in 1999 and helped the show win its first Emmy. Left in 2002 to return to international reporting. Host of National Geographic's Explorer and correspondent for ABC's Nightline and The Oprah Winfrey Show. Co-authored the bestselling book Somewhere Inside, about her efforts to free her sister Laura from the clutches of the 2009 Pyongyang incarceration. Debuted Our America on OWN in 2011.
Birthday: August 30
Hometown: Sacramento, CA
Education: University of Southern California
Marital status: Married
Favorite TV shows: The Daily Show, Game of Thrones
Guilty pleasure: Online shopping
Media idol: "Oprah... of course"
Last book read: "Fifty Shades of Grey... JUST KIDDING! Lulu in the Sky by Leong Eng"
Twitter handle: @lisaling

Our America continues your long association with Oprah Winfrey. What is an example of an interviewing or research technique you have learned from her?
There is perhaps no better listener than Oprah Winfrey; that's why she's such a terrific interviewer. Even when she's not on television, she looks you right in the eyes and waits to hear your opinion or thoughts on whatever the issue may be. Both Oprah and one of my previous bosses, Barbara Walters, are truly exceptional listeners and that makes all the difference.

A recent episode of Our America focused on the lives of men who did prison time for crimes they did not commit, as well as one man on death row whose daughter is trying to clear him. How do you determine which topics you’ll focus on?
The beautiful thing about Our America is that there is never a shortage of topics. We attempt to explore the diversity and the complexity that comes with being an American.

"OWN is hands down the best place I've ever worked."

Together with the production company that produces Our America with me, Part 2 Pictures, we are constantly pitching stories. Our process is a very collaborative one, but ultimately the green light comes from OWN. The network is also constantly suggesting topics for us to tackle. While many of our stories have been quite hard-hitting, we try to balance each season with a combination of topics that are challenging, and some that are a bit lighter. My prerequisite, however, is that, whatever the topic, it will inspire conversation and thought. I think that we are more evolved as people, the more we know about one another.

You have a great ability to gain the trust of your interview subjects and make them feel comfortable on camera. What are some key elements that all on-camera hard news interviewers should respect?
I think the reason we've been successful with getting people to give us interviews is because they know that Our America is a show that will not exploit or sensationalize their stories. It takes a lot of courage to share some of the things that people share with us. At times, people will tell us things they've never even told their closest friends or family members. We take very seriously the need to responsibly tell people's stories. Knowing that our objective is to treat everyone we encounter with dignity has made people feel a lot more comfortable than they might feel doing other shows. We believe in being respectful and, in turn, that respect is always reciprocated.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Lola Ogunnaike, Freelance Journalist and TV Personality?

Throughout your career and now for Our America, you travel a great deal. How has technology affected your job? Does the fact that everyone, whether they're in the media or not, is "reporting" on issues through Twitter and other social media platforms changed what you do?
Instant access to information via technology has made my job a lot easier. I am not a breaking news reporter, so I generally don't have to act immediately if breaking news happens. But, when I am in the field and need info, it helps tremendously to be able to access any amount of information necessary. I admit that I am a bit of a Twitter junkie. I really love being able to be connected with the people who watch Our America. Instant feedback and being able to interact with viewers is an extraordinary thing. This past season, I live-tweeted during almost every episode and I had so much fun doing it. Twitter is truly revolutionary.

It seems like cable channels such as OWN and HD Net have really provided a fertile, new home for investigative journalism. Do you have complete freedom as to what to cover? And how different is your OWN environment from when you were doing reports for Nightline or National Geographic?
I am so lucky to work for OWN. It is the most creative freedom I've ever had in a job and I am so incredibly grateful for that. I also have a great deal of respect for the OWN executives who oversee our show. We really operate in such a collaborative way, and I love it. I've never felt pressure to do anything about which I have felt uncomfortable. OWN is hands down the best place I've ever worked.

"I had a great time as co-host [of The View], but I don't regret for a second where I went from there."

I had an incredible experience when I first started working for National Geographic in 2005. I worked with producers and executives who were passionate and collaborative. Years later, however, I'll just say that male ego interfered with the process. So, I went to OWN and couldn't be happier. I still contribute to Nightline when I can, and I'm thrilled that it's performing so well in the ratings. I think the fact that Nightline is doing so well is a testament to the fact that people are hungry for good, strong storytelling.

What is an example of a topic you ultimately rejected for Our America, and why?
Neither Oprah nor I will cover hate groups. Giving people who express hatred toward people a platform of any kind, even if it's critical, is not something that we will do.

What are your thoughts on all the changes in hosts The View has gone through, and do you ever miss being on the show?
Given how long the show has been on air, there hasn't been that much change. I had a great time as co-host, but I don't regret for a second where I went from there. The only time I really miss being on The View is during election seasons. It really is a terrific forum in which to discuss politics in a serious but entertaining way.

How did your sister Laura's 2009 experiences in North Korea change your outlook on investigative reporting in dangerous areas?
Actually, what happened with Laura has made me more defiant than ever about the need for solid journalism. The fact that Laura was illegally apprehended and held for so long for wanting to report about the horrific things that are happening to North Korean refugees was just tragic. We need journalists to uncover truths. It's never more important than now.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Lola Ogunnaike, Freelance Journalist and TV Personality?

Richard Horgan is co-editor of FishbowlLA.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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