Listening, respect among best tools, Ling tells students

ARLINGTON -- TV journalist Lisa Ling's work has made her a celebrity, but she told UTA students Tuesday afternoon that two of her most powerful tools are listening to people and treating them with respect.

That approach may have even helped keep her alive.

In 2005, she used it to win over members of the violent gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, when she had to negotiate with them to leave an El Salvador prison she was visiting for a documentary.

"People will generally open up if you make it clear you want to listen," she said. "Everyone has a story to tell. I try to always keep in mind that this person was born of a mother who loves him or her. At the end of the day, we all want the same things."

Ling, 37, host of National Geographic Explorer and special correspondent for The Oprah Winfrey Show, was at the University of Texas at Arlington as the third guest in this year's Maverick Speakers Series.

In an informal classroom session with a handful of graduate sociology students, Ling touched on her career and shared a behind-the-scenes look at some of her most powerful documentaries.

Since joining Explorer in December 2002, she has covered the looting of antiquities in war-torn Iraq, investigated the deadly drug war in Colombia and examined China's one-child policy.

In particular, several students and assistant professor Heather Jacobson expressed interest in a documentary on North Korea, where Ling went with an eye doctor in hopes of getting an inside look at life under Kim Jong Il. It was filmed before Ling's sister Laura Ling was detained in North Korea for several months last year.

"Are these people aware that they're living in a constant state of fear?" asked student Lisa Hoyer of North Richland Hills.

Ling said that she had never seen "that level of indoctrination in my life" but that she couldn't blame North Koreans, adding that the house in which she stayed "had books written by two people: Great Leader and Dear Leader."

"It's almost impossible to be curious," she said. "From birth, you are led to believe that this is the only way of life and that it's actually a pretty good life."

Students asked whether she would get involved personally if she knew she could help a source (it depends on the situation), whether her interview questions were scripted (no, but she has more time than regular TV reporters) and how she gains access to sources. They also wanted to know her thoughts on the future of TV news (she deplores the influence of ratings).

A larger audience

On Tuesday night, Ling delivered her formal speech to about 2,700 people at Texas Hall.

"No, I wasn't in any of the Charlie's Angels movies. That's Lucy Liu," she said in opening as the crowd erupted with laughter.

She also said that Winfrey is "very cool," and that her sister is doing well since being freed.

Ling recalled times during her career when she experienced culture shock because she had on what she called her "American glasses." She said Americans sometime have misconceptions about different cultures and global issues.

"It's those experiences as a journalist that propelled me to want to communicate those stories to a larger audience," she said.

Correspondent John Harden contributed to this report.

Patrick M. Walker, 817-390-7423