“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.”
This is the poem that journalist Laura Ling recited to herself everyday while she was held captive in a North Korean Prison. Ling was allowed to return to the US after her sister Lisa Ling and former President Bill Clinton negotiated her release with Kim Jong-il. She described her experience being imprisoned in North Korea as “the most terrifying time in my life… [I was] a prisoner in one of the most isolated countries in the world, one that views our own as its enemy. I didn’t know if I’d see my family again, I didn’t know if I’d survive until the next day.” Before she was captured, she was working on a story surrounding the North Korean regime.
Laura Ling recently visited the University of Missouri campus to speak at the Missouri Theatre. On Thursday, September 6, 2012, Ling spoke to a packed audience, many of them journalism students.
“I was drilled for hour after hour, day after day. Anytime my interrogator would ask me ‘what are the names of the people you interviewed?’ I didn’t know if I was sealing my own fate because I would say to him ‘I don’t know their names.’ But I also knew that if I didn’t approach that situation with integrity and try to safeguard [the interviewees] to the best of my ability, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”
She paused for a moment, the theatre was silent except for the bustling sounds of scribbled note taking. If all the other note takers were like me, we were trying to record her powerful words in our notebooks as quickly as our pencils would allow. I sat on the edge of my chair, completely riveted. Ling went on to describe in vivid detail how she was captured, interrogated, and sentenced to a dismal prison in North Korea. Shortly after she and her journalist partner were captured, they had a few moments where they were left alone with their belongings. Immediately they rushed to destroy the personal information of the people they interviewed.
“We knew that we had things in our possession that would not be looked upon favorably by the north korean authorities …including notes that I had written down in my notebook asking [questions] about the regime…we immediately went to work trying to just destroy some of the things we had. We ripped up notes and swallowed them…we deleted pictures…we tore up ribbons of videotape. For this story our biggest concern was for the people that we had been interviewing.”
With every passing minute, my respect for Mrs. Ling just grew exponentially. Her journalistic values and her personal ethics are such a tremendous example of what all journalists should strive for. Ling went on to speak about the issues that impassion her to report on:
“I have written about extensively is the struggle for freedom in different parts of the world, as well as with the battles we struggle with within ourselves that make us feel in prison. I never truly understood the luxury that our freedom is until I went out into the world and met people who had risked their lives for greater freedom, and … until I lost my own.”
While Ling’s account of her traumatic experience in North Korea was unbelievable and inspiring, there were other parts of her speech that were just as moving. For example, she played a clip from Narco War Next Door, a news-style documentary that she was part of. The piece focused on the Mexican drug cartel and the killings associated with it. At one point during the footage (47:40 warning: graphic) she and her team were at the scene of a drug-related double murder, just minutes after it happened. In-fact, police had yet to block off the scene when the camera crew arrived. Ling’s crew was able to capture footage of the family’s reaction. With cameras rolling, the victim’s mother received news of her son’s murder. In a frantic state of disbelief and shock, she cried and screamed in spanish. Although I did not understand what she said, her pain transcended language. As I watched, tears filled my eyes and my heart felt heavy with compassion.
I became very aware of just how powerful multimedia can be. Combining images, audio, and video with news gives the events an immersive quality that is hard to obtain with words alone. These mediums don’t give you the option to distance yourself from the experience in the way that text does. Our primitive instincts direct us away from pain, to repress traumatic experience, and to seek what is comfortable. While these instincts helped us to survive and evolve, when it comes to news, it’s detrimental. Why? Because we may end up sheltering ourselves from the gritty, uncomfortable, emotional things that are reality. Over time, becoming immune and callous to certain events happening in places around the world. After all, they are often places that are far away the freedom, comfort, and safety we enjoy. While certain stories are uncomfortable to experience, they are real and they are true. In order for anything to change, people must connect with it and be affected by it on a personal level. That is the first step.
“Journalists know that certain stories contain risks, but we also know that leaving certain issues ignored can be more detrimental to us as a society.”
Ling spoke of the importance of multimedia, telling us of a time when she traveled to Myanmar, a country formerly known as Burma. In Myanmar, “the internet was censored and it cost 3,000 dollars to purchase a cell phone.” The government had devised these methods in order to keep citizens disconnected and therefore under control. In-fact, much of the success of the recent Jasmine Revolution has been attributed to social media, which allowed the movement to organize and assemble. Similarly, against the odds, the Burmese people found ways to utilize the power of multimedia in their search for democracy and freedom.
“Despite the fact that the government was controlling the media and censoring the internet, people were still finding ways to take pictures… and upload them onto the internet so that the whole world could see. And it really sparked an international online campaign bringing attention to what was happening there. Even though the people there didn’t have guns to protect themselves, they had a different kind of weapon: the internet, which proved to be quite powerful.”
Being able to hear the desperation in another’s voice, their pain, or their laughter, has the potential to unite us as human beings. Allowing us to have compassion and empathy for people whose cultures we may not understand. Intrinsically we all understand humanity. I believe this is a key component to journalism. Fostering a better understanding of our world and the people living in it. Ling’s speech helped me appreciate the importance of multimedia and the role it plays in journalism.