“It is frustrating when people say to me, ‘Do you want to be the next Connie Chung?’ ” says an exasperated Lisa Ling.
This type of stereotypical question comes with the territory when you’re a young, female Asian American TV reporter.
But Chung would hardly seem to be a likely model for this intrepid 24-year-old. While the former CBS anchorwoman, now a roving reporter for ABC News, spent years reading the nightly news from the safe confines of a studio, Ling has relished the opportunity to file reports from a variety of sometimes dangerous hot spots.
Along with Mitchell Koss, her co-producer, cameraman and mentor, she’s dodged mortar shells in Afghanistan, escaped the wrath of a drunken, gun-toting government bodyguard in Cambodia and ventured into blood-soaked Algeria.
“There’s certainly a perception that the anchor [position] is the most highly coveted job [in TV news],” Ling observes. “I don’t hate it, and I certainly would be honored if someone wanted me to anchor ABC’s ‘World News Tonight.’ But I prefer being far away from home, immersed in another culture. I love it.”
Public-television station KCET Channel 28 has aired eight of the duo’s documentaries. All of these projects grew out of shorter news stories that Ling and Koss were assigned to cover for their principal employer, Channel One, which every weekday beams 12-minute newscasts into 12,000 secondary schools nationwide. The satellite news network reaches 8 million students.
At an age when most journalists are just embarking on their careers, Ling is already an eight-year veteran who has filed reports from nearly two dozen countries.
The personable reporter began her career in her native Sacramento when she was hired at the age of 16 to be one of four hosts of a local teen magazine show called “Scratch.” When the program was nationally syndicated two years later, Ling came to the attention of Channel One.
She was just 18 when she joined the nascent news channel in 1991. Suddenly, she was covering complex international political stories as well as issues like teen pregnancy and smoking.
Though she describes herself as an extrovert, Ling says she struggled for self-confidence when she arrived at Channel One.
“I was the youngest reporter [at the network], and there were reporters 26, 27 years old who had graduated from Harvard and Yale. And here’s this kid. . . . I really had to find a way to assert myself,” she says.
At Los Angeles-based Channel One, Ling was encouraged to develop a more personal reporting style. Rather than presenting stories in a detached manner, she is often seen as part of the story.
This more intimate style of journalism certainly has helped Ling connect with her young Channel One viewers. She believes the network is the sole source of news for many of these students.
The original philosophy behind this reporting style was that “students intrinsically don’t care too much about Bosnia, but they do care about our reporters,” she comments. “They care about Lisa because they know her. They see her every day. When she goes to Tibet and gets arrested and expelled [from the country], they feel like they’re there with her. They’re scared because she’s scared.”
This form of first-person reporting is particularly evident in the documentaries that Ling and Koss produce as a result of their Channel One-sponsored expeditions. Created in a cinema verite style, they capture the story through Ling’s eyes by presenting her personal observations and experiences.
One moment the viewer might find her speaking impromptu to the camera in a South American hotel room. The next moment she might be shown following Colombian soldiers through remote coca fields as they try to hunt down cocaine processors.
To some critics, these documentaries tend to be too informally structured and personal to be termed potent or legitimate journalism.
“A lot of people have criticized the work because they believe there’s a narrow definition of what journalism constitutes,” acknowledges Ling, who is a sporadic undergraduate history student at USC.
“Anything that deviates from that they don’t consider journalism. We like to provide people with a visceral experience,” she says. "[People have said to me], ‘When you were in the world’s largest slum [in India], you could almost smell what it was like by your expression.’ It’s not that I’m trying to force myself on the viewer. I’m just their eyes and ears. I think our work is quite pure.”
Ling’s work definitely impressed ABC News, which hired her last July to produce a minimum of 10 stories through next July. (Channel One and ABC also have a separate agreement to share news reports.) She says ABC has encouraged her to continue using some of the informal aspects of her reporting style.
Recently, Ling and Koss became one of the few television news teams bold enough to venture into civil war-torn Algeria. They filed separate pieces for Channel One and the ABC evening news.
Ling’s favorite story, however, has nothing to do with an international news issue but with her 12-year-old cousin. Last year KCET aired her documentary “Ali,” which chronicled this brave girl’s unsuccessful bout with liver cancer.
“She was an extraordinary individual,” Ling recalls. “I want to start a fund in her name and distribute the videotape to different hospice care organizations just to increase awareness about the [cancer treatment issue].”
Ling acknowledges that Koss, 44, has been an invaluable presence in shaping their stories and in her own professional growth.
Koss has written in-depth articles on his experiences in countries like Afghanistan for the L.A. Weekly. Before moving to Channel One in 1992, he produced documentaries for a number of networks and series, including the Discovery Channel, “Nova” and “National Geographic.”
“Mitch is 20 years older than me,” she says. “It’s a very odd combination, the two of us running around the world together. I like to think of Mitch as like having a professor in my presence all the time. He knows so much about so many different things. He’s really taken me under his wing and taught me so much. We balance one another. He brings knowledge and experience and I bring a fresh approach.”