Professor's Prologue

Lisa Ling: A Story-teller with Purpose

by Dwight DeWerth-Pallmeyer, Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Director of the Widener Communication Studies Program

If you were to ask a young journalism student what reporting was all about, they might answer something like this:  “Journalism is telling an audience what is going on in the world.” Ask the student, “Why is that important?” and you’ll likely get the reply, “So that people are informed and can make good decisions.”

Such a response falls in line with the traditional objective journalistic structure of news, in which “both” sides of a story are fairly represented for the public. But that simplistic understanding of the news underscores many of the problems with the traditional news formula.

Many significant events feature multiple sides to stories, not just two. And frankly, it’s not always “fair” to give equal representation to “both” sides of a story. Sometimes, as journalist John Hockenberry’s recent examination of the coverage of global warming on PBS’ Frontline illustrates, giving equal weight to both viewpoints is not reasonable. In the global warming debate, giving balanced coverage to both sides of the debate distorts the story since 97 percent of scientists agree that global warming is real while the three percent who dissent are backed heavily by large businesses that are known polluters.

Journalist Lisa Ling has consistently demonstrated a willingness to break the traditional journalistic mode in favor of telling real stories of consequence that go after greater truths. In an interview with the Clark University Scarlet, Ling said, “I love good story-telling. . .I love being immersed in stories in unfamiliar environments."  

At times, an overly simplistic model of neutral objectivity fails to tell the full story. Ling’s work demonstrates something more.  Her approach is akin to the style offered by proponents of advocacy journalism--taking sides in championing disenfranchised peoples or highlighting messy issues.  She covers stories that feature the lives of individuals who are not typically “newsmakers.”

Over the course of her career, Ling has traveled the planet and has never seemed to shy away from difficult issues or uncomfortable realities. Her early experience as a teenaged reporter with Channel One allowed her the chance to see the world, and she now admits that covering those stories affected her. In a recent Ted Talk, Ling said, “As a journalist, I have seen things that have scarred me. I have interacted with people who have haunted me. I have heard things that have pained me.” This admission has undoubtedly shaped the way she has approached her journalistic career and the stories she has opted to bring to light: girls who were systematically raped in the Congo, prisoners who spent years in penitentiaries for crimes of which they were later exonerated, her cousin’s unsuccessful battle with liver cancer. It would be disingenuous for a reporter to tell such stories with a neutral, detached point of view, as is typically part of the formula for objective reporting. That’s why Ling’s advocacy approach resonates so well with audiences.

In that same Ted Talk, Ling admitted that the stories she has covered have also impacted the way she views God. “Whenever I start to blame God for what I encounter in the world, I stop and remind myself that maybe it is I who should be doing more. We get so hung up on the notion of success that we can easily forget about being of service to others.”

In the end, that is what effective story-telling and effective journalistic reporting is all about. . .being of service. If that is best accomplished by taking a more involved role in the stories covered, so be it.

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Dr. Dwight Dewerth-Pallmeyer

Dr. Dwight DeWerth-Pallmeyer is an associate professor and director of the Communication Studies Program at Widener University. DeWerth-Pallmeyer got his start in radio as a news director, and as an academic, he has continued to work in radio as faculty adviser to Widener’s student-run station.

He recently helped develop a media informatics major at Widener, which studies the interdependent relationships among humans, computers, and media systems, and he is currently helping to oversee the construction of a new state-of-the-art facility on Widener’s Main Campus to house informatics, communication studies, and computer science.