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Epilogue: Lisa Ling

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

The Thrill of Storytelling

One always wonders how network TV reporters became successful. Did recent Philadelphia Speakers Series lecturer Lisa Ling get her big break because she was bright and attractive? Perhaps. But what has kept her at the top of the reporting game is clearly much more. 

In her talk, Ling indicated that she was first drawn to television reporting because she would be on TV and perhaps because it would give her some notoriety. That is likely the reason many broadcast reporters go into the industry. There is a “rush” to it.  

I remember, for example, how excited I was as a young radio reporter in Wyoming when after only a couple of weeks on the job, I was feeding my first story to CBS radio. It was exciting.  Later I came to realize that my biggest days as a reporter were often the worst days of others’ lives. . .plant closings, getting ensnared by scandal, murder-suicides.  As excited as I was to occasionally free-lance network reports, the people I covered were often suffering almost unfathomable catastrophe.

Like many reporters, I didn’t stay in the field very long.  The rush of being on-air was no longer enough. That’s what demonstrates Ling’s worth.  She undoubtedly has garnered far more fame than I will ever achieve, and the thrill of “being famous” is clearly no longer the key motivation in her life. Instead, it’s telling the story. 

As her description of her 20-year career in TV journalism indicated, her biggest moments have not been defined by meeting famous people, but by telling the stories of real people in a variety of human contexts.  It is the story that matters, because that is largely how we define our lives. 

The Myth: A More Significant Truth

Dan McAdams chairs the psychology department at Northwestern University.* He is also the author of numerous books devoted to the premise that we define who we are by the stories of our lives.  In an early book, The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self, McAdams writes, “We do not discover ourselves in myth, we make ourselves through myth. Truth is constructed in the midst of our loving and hating; our tasting, smelling and feeling; our daily appointments and weekend lovemaking, in the conversations we have with those to whom we are closest; and with the stranger we meet on the bus.” 

Similarly, humanistic psychologist Stanley Krippner of Saybrook University defines myth “as a statement or story about important existential human issues that has consequences for human behaviour.”

The journalist might freeze when confronted with the notion that s/he is helping to construct myth, but that is likely because journalists are trained to “tell the objective truth.”  While “objective fact” may represent one kind of truth, myths—stories about important existential human issues – may represent a more significant truth.

As a local radio news director for three years, I learned to tell a news story easily in terms of “clear facts.” But I came to conclude that much of the news I told uncovered little useful truth. Sure, a house burned to the ground, and crime occurred daily.  But the same stories were formulaically told in the same way.

The kind of reporting that Ling does ultimately seems of much greater value and provides a necessary “myth” to the human experience  . . .  the real world that matters to us far more than the standard fare of local TV or radio newscasts.

What Ling has discovered is her high calling as a reporter. Her impressive dossier of stories has ranged from telling the story of rape victims in the Congo to sex offenders in the U.S., from faith healers to sex swingers, from puppy mills here in Pennsylvania to hurricane victims in New Orleans.  And in her talk at The Kimmel Center, Ling made it clear that she still very much enjoys telling the stories.  

The Full Story

Ling’s curiosity has also fostered the way she approaches her job. To convey the “myth” of the rape victim and the sexual offender is to approach each individual with a sense of dignity. While she admitted covering the sex offenders made her queasy, she wouldn’t be able to convey the “truth” of the story if she couldn’t afford them the dignity and the comfort to tell why they did what they did. 

That matches with the understanding of Dr. Alex Bennet, cofounder of the Mountain Quest Institute in West Virginia. “To tell a personal story to others, we must relate to them and they to us. We are literally engaging others in our personal experience, sharing our thoughts, feelings and emotions.”  Ling would not be able to tell the authentic story without establishing the trust necessary to enable real disclosure.

The journalists’ true obligation is to tell the fullness of a story –  to tell the perspective of both the victimizer as well as the victim. Because the truth conveyed through the myths of our lives is that the human experience encompasses the guilty and the innocent, the believer and the agnostic, the ecstatic and the mournful. It takes a passion to tell a full range of stories. It takes a bravery to give voice to those who many of us would rather stay silent.  But in conveying those varied, and often conflicting personal narratives, the journalist can make a real and lasting contribution to our mutual understanding. We can discover who we are. It is that willingness and hunger for authentic myth-telling that is keeping Ling at the top of her game.  

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