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Ling to educators: Tell the world’s stories

Journalist Lisa Ling had strong words of rebuke for the current state of the U.S. news media–and an inspiring message of hope for the thousands of educators attending this year’s Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) conference in Austin Feb. 4.

"There aren’t enough people telling the world’s stories," said Ling, who has traveled the globe as a correspondent for National Geographic and the Oprah Winfrey Show. She urged conference attendees to help open their students’ eyes to the world around them.

Ling got her start in journalism at age 18 working for Channel One, which sparked controversy because it showed ads to students during school hours. To help overcome this stigma, the news program aimed at students began taking on more serious assignments.

Working for Channel One in the mid-80s, Ling covered the civil war in Afghanistan as a 21-year-old student at USC. She said she was struck by how many 10-year-old boys she met in that war-torn country who knew little else except how to fire a bazooka.

When the former Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan in the late 80s, leaving behind a nation with billions of dollars of high-tech weaponry supplied by the U.S. to help fight our Cold War enemy at the time, "I wondered if we thought of the consequences of arming a country that knew nothing except war," Ling told a hushed audience.

Back then, she said, there were few media outlets covering events around the globe. And now, even though we have more news coverage with the advent of cable TV news and 24-hour news channels, "we’re still not any more informed about our world," Ling said.

She added: "Somehow we’ve empowered these people to discuss and debate and pontificate" on the key issues of our time–when most don’t have any firsthand knowledge of what they’re talking about.

After seven years at Channel One, Ling was deemed too old to appeal to that medium’s youthful demographic. Eventually, she ended up on The View–the multi-generational talk show aimed at women.

As the show’s resident Generation Xer, it was Ling’s job to represent the youth culture. But "I’d just had this global experience" covering events such as the refugee crisis in Kosovo, she said, "and I wanted to show that we could be multidimensional." She also wanted to use the show’s platform to raise awareness of larger issues.

"The producers said, ‘That’s nice–but no one in America cares about what’s going on in the rest of the world,’" she said.

Later, to loud applause, Ling said: "Don’t you wish our media would spend a fraction of their time covering substantive news?"

Ling found the opportunity to do that for National Geographic and as a special correspondent for the Oprah Winfrey Show.

"Every time I start on a project, I have a preconceived idea of what the people will be like, what the culture will be like"–and it’s never quite that simple, she said.

One powerful example was when Ling went to China to report on how Chinese families are abandoning their young daughters or giving them up for adoption by the thousands as a result of that nation’s one-child-only policy for controlling its exploding population.

Ling said she couldn’t understand how Chinese mothers could be so callous toward their little girls–until she interviewed several families and realized there’s a clear economic reason for choosing to keep sons over daughters: Chinese parents worry that if they have a baby girl and keep her, she’ll eventually marry and move in with her husband’s family, leaving no one to care for them when they get old.

"It hit me like a ton of bricks," Ling said of this simple explanation. Her point was that understanding different cultures changes our perception of them profoundly.

"My hope is that, when viewers are able to live vicariously through our reports, it will be enlightening" for them, too, she said.

What offers real hope for our future is the understanding that comes from learning about others, Ling said, as she urged TCEA attendees to awaken this understanding within their students.

And though Ling didn’t mention this herself, it was obvious to those attending an ed-tech conference that technology provides a key means of doing this, as tools such as eMail, video, and the internet can help connect students to the world around them.

Ling ended with a quote from Oprah that served as a strong call to action for educators to raise their students’ awareness of how others live and inspire them to seek change:

"Now that you know, you can’t pretend that you don’t."

(Editor’s note: For more live coverage of this year’s TCEA conference in Austin Feb. 4-6, visit the TCEA Conference Information Center page at eSN Online:

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