I knew as soon as I walked through the doors of the National Geographic building in Washington, D.C., in 2001, that I wanted to work for them. I had a great job as a co-host for ABC's The View, but I had always wanted to go back to reporting in the field. National Geographic, to me, was a place that would allow me to do this: cover international stories like no one else, with integrity, amazing insight and spectacular imagery. Two years later, I got that dream job as a correspondent for National Geographic's documentary series Explorer, and my world hasn't been the same since.
Now, nearly a decade after setting my new career sights (and getting married, joining the Oprah Winfrey show, globe-trotting and giving speeches across the country....!), Explorer is celebrating 25 years on the air. It is the longest-running documentary series in cable television history. Two thousand films with investigations spanning 120 countries on every continent. Nearly 60 Emmys, hundreds of other awards and a 2010 Television Academy Honor for "exemplifying television with a conscience." On Monday, April 19, I have the honor of hosting National Geographic Channel's two-hour event special called Explorer: 25 Years, marking this historic milestone and highlighting some of the most riveting topics the anthology has examined.
National Geographic Explorer celebrates 25 years of opening windows on the world with ground-breaking documentary films. (Music by Balkan Beat Box, "Move It")
Since working with National Geographic, I've been able to experience and explore so many different kinds of stories, like female suicide bombers, the drug war in Colombia, and maximum security prisons. I've investigated topics like the blossoming marijuana market and visited a sophisticated growing operation to see just a glimpse of what an industrialized marijuana operation could look like, if it were to become legal.
When documenting Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, arguably the biggest and most dangerous gang in the world, there were four MS homicides the night of our arrival in El Salvador. Even worse for us, on the second day, we found out that my crew and I had been targeted for kidnapping by inmates at an alleged MS-controlled prison. (Yes, that trip to the prison was aborted!)
For Explorer I also ventured inside North Korea for a firsthand look inside this secretive nation. We went in as part of a medical mission led by a Nepalese eye surgeon who had been invited in to treat cataract patients. We visited three cities and provided an unprecedented look into North Korea's crippled heath care system and its people's undying devotion to their Dear Leader -- at least, that's the image they wanted me to see. I never thought I would have anything to do with the North Korean government after that trip.
But please don't think I'm an adrenaline junkie. For me, being an Explorer correspondent has allowed me to get very close to my stories, even when situations on the ground are a bit unpredictable. Because apart from the obvious perils, diving into the story can also touch your heart and impact you tremendously ... as was the case in my most memorable Explorer story: "China's Lost Girls."
Because of a years-long preference for boys in China after its government implemented a one-child policy, countless numbers of Chinese girls have been hidden, aborted or abandoned. As a result, tens of thousands of girls end up in orphanages across China. I joined some American families as they traveled to China to meet their new daughters for the first time. Ours were the first news cameras allowed into an orphanage to watch the adoption process.
Lisa Ling recalls the overpowering emotion when American couples in China meet their adopted daughters for the first time.
It was one of the most emotional experiences of my life as I witnessed firsthand China's gender gap, its roots and its possible repercussions; but it was also the most remarkable. I saw the joy of these growing families and also saw these girls -- once the most rejected members of Chinese society -- just essentially win the lottery in becoming part of new families who want only to show them love. It was a really extraordinary experience, and I'm still very close to a lot of those little girls.
Through all of these experiences as a correspondent for Explorer -- and these are just a few -- I hope I have been able to make an impact, or at least, make people really stop and think in a substantive way about many of the issues I've covered. I try to drive home this point when I am speaking to college students around the country considering their career paths. I first encourage them to travel while they are young because it will widen their perspectives and ultimately make them smarter and more well versed. I truly believe that exposure to the world makes young people more marketable as well.
Sometimes when I watch the news, I see talking heads who shout and tell people what to think. So many news executives underestimate Americans' interest in international news, but Explorer, never has. Americans want to know what is going on in the world, and thankfully, Explorer has been there for a quarter of a century to help them do just that.
National Geographic Channel's Explorer: 25 Years airs on Monday, April 19 at 9PM ET/PT. For more information, go here.