Lisa Ling has reported from some of the most dangerous places on the planet, including North Korea and Afghanistan. But for the past five years she has used her talent for in-depth storytelling at home, reporting on subcultures around the U.S.
In the upcoming season of "This Is Life" on CNN, Ling gains access to one of the nation's most notorious biker gangs and interviews children of cult leader and convicted felon Warren Jeffs. The Huffington Post spoke to Ling about what viewers can expect from the second season of "This Is Life" and the experiences that have shaped her as a journalist.
Watch the trailer for the second season on "This Is Life With Lisa Ling":
When did you realize you wanted to be a journalist?
I started working as a reporter for a show that was seen in schools across the country when I was 18 years old. It was a show called Channel One News, and initially I think I was hired to be a kind of cute new anchor for the show. Then the show started to send correspondents all over the world to cover stories -- and I, of course, volunteered to do it because I didn’t come from a lot of money and I didn’t have the opportunity to do a lot of travel. The show ended up sending me to places like Afghanistan -- to cover the civil war there -- Algeria, Colombia, China, India, Japan, Kazakhstan, and the things that I saw in the world really propelled me to want to be a journalist and tell stories to a wider audience. You know, as a 21-year-old, going to Afghanistan being surrounded by 10-year-old-looking boys armed to the teeth -- with weapons that may have been paid for by the United States -- I thought, "people in America need to know that this scene exists in the world." So it was really that experience of getting a chance to see the world that really reinforced my desire to be a journalist.
You have reported from all over the globe. What prompted you to tackle stories in America?
I spent a good portion of my journalism career, in the beginning, overseas at Channel One, but also National Geographic. I was leaving the country almost every month, but when I started working for Oprah’s network, OWN, quite honestly it was a brand-new network and they didn’t really have the budget to send me overseas. So we created “Our America,” where we looked at American subcultures. I fell in love with it, because in many cases it felt like I was in another country because I was dealing with people and interacting with worlds that seem so different from my own. As everyone knows, there are no shortage of stories in America, and I’ve been doing these kinds of stories for seven seasons, and I’ve really fallen in love with it -- I’ve learned so much and I feel like I’ve become a better person and a better human as a result of it. I do hope I can go overseas more in the future, but I am really loving doing these stories that are in our backyard. Plus, now that I have a kid, it is difficult. I am deeply passionate about what I do, but it is hard to be away from her -- every time I leave my house it just rips my heart out of my body.
The public's trust in the media is extraordinarily low. Why do you think that is, and what do you think can be done to gain the public's trust back?
Unfortunately, at the end of the day the loudest voices often prevail and I wish, as journalists, we were able to provide information and not be concerned whether it rates. To me, it’s a travesty that our news has to adhere to a ratings system at all, because inevitably decisions will be based on how we think things are going to rate. I mean, I don’t see things changing as long as we have to adhere to a ratings system, but I do feel grateful that an outlet like CNN, which is the premier global journalism platform, is allowing me to tell these stories in an hour-long format, because quite honestly, the stories and the worlds that I cover aren’t necessarily breaking news, but they are no less journalistic than anything else on the network.
What are some things that we can expect to see on this season on "This Is Life"?
I am incredibly excited about this season, it is hands down one of the best seasons we’ve produced. One of the reasons is because we get access to certain worlds that have never been granted before. We got unprecedented access into the Mongols Motorcycle Club in the wake of that notorious biker shootout earlier this May. The Mongols are the group, of all of the 1 percenter biker clubs, that the government has been targeting the hardest and they let our cameras in. We also got exclusive interviews with two of Warren Jeffs' 49 kids; four of them have left the [Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints] community and two of them have agreed to tell us their stories. I can’t think of a figure alive in America as notorious as Warren Jeffs, and his kids want to share with the world -- but also members of their community who are still locked in there -- what their father is really like.
How did you convince them to speak?
It took a little time with [Jeffs' children] Roy and Becky to get them to warm up to us. I’ve become very friendly with both of them and I so appreciate that they told their stories, but we did have to kind of convince them that we’re not the kind of people who are going to go, get their stories and leave them for the rest of their lives and never call them again. Which is why it is important for me to give my phone number to anyone that I’ve ever interviewed so they can reach me if they want to, because I take very seriously the responsibility that comes along with people sharing these deeply held things with me. Roy and Becky are by no means looking for publicity, but they desperately want to help their people who are still under their father’s control. They want people to know about who their father was before he became the prophet.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The season premiere of "This Is Life With Lisa Ling" airs Wednesday, Sept. 30, at 9 p.m. EDT on CNN.