Theft, assault, sabotage and a suspicious death—it's not a description you’d expect to hear about Mt. Everest. It certainly wasn’t what Michael Kodas had imagined when he went there as part of an expedition to write about a husband and wife who had climbed the world’s highest peak 15 times.
The widespread crime at Everest Base Camp and even his own experiences on the mountain—having his oxygen tanks stolen and a teammate threatening to set his tent on fire—led instead to his critically acclaimed book High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed.
Kodas has spent his career reporting on environmental and societal issues. He views his work as a calling and a public service.
“My love of the outdoors had a definite impact on the type of journalism I have pursued,” he said. “Figuring out how we interact with the natural world and the consequences, both good and bad, have always fascinated me.”
An author and award-winning photojournalist, Kodas is the associate director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at CU-Boulder. At the center he administers the Scripps Fellowships for midcareer journalists (He was a 2009-10 Scripps Fellow at CU) and teaches classes to undergraduate and graduate students in science writing and environmental reporting.
Throughout his career Kodas has traveled to locations around the globe to report on a social or environmental situation, from working as a forest firefighter in Colorado and circumnavigating Long Island Sound in a kayak to trekking through the rainforests of Brazil and Indonesia, and his two trips to Everest.
“I joke that I’ve turned into a hazards journalist,” he said. “All kinds of stories can be done beyond the breaking news stories—the science behind why something is happening, social issues and demographic issues that are affecting a hazard society is dealing with.”
While he doesn’t consider himself a visionary, Kodas does think of himself as a storyteller with vision and he cultivates that in his students. Cultivating vision in his profession helps him identify trends, to not just cover breaking news, but to put the sometimes random pieces of a story together in order to see the whole picture.
“It’s much more difficult to look at the ugly or dangerous aspects of the world,” he said. “Things we should change and that people should know about that aren’t inherently beautiful or fun to look at, I see that as bearing witness.”
His passion for photojournalism started during his freshman year in college when a field trip to the Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Times set the course of his career.
“I thought, ‘You guys are going to have to take me out of here in a casket.’ It was the coolest place I’d ever seen,” he said.
Years later, Kodas was inspired by many of the photojournalists and writers who covered the Vietnam War. He met Pulitzer Prize winning-photographers Eddie Adams and Nick Ut, who took the two best-known photos of the war—the execution of the Vietcong soldier and the girl injured by napalm. Years later, Kodas had the opportunity to work alongside Ut in Vietnam in the 1980s, which he considers a great honor.
“I was particularly impressed by people who did great daily news coverage and also produced deeply-reported, powerfully written books that had great impact,” said Kodas. “The coverage of Vietnam I saw when I was young was really when I recognized the power of journalism.”
That was also during the time when “new” journalism was getting established, and the work of writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson made him realize that journalistic storytelling could be entertaining and take creative risks similar to those taken by fiction writers. Photographers like Sebastiao Salgado and James Nachtwey made photographs that dug deep inside situations Kodas never dreamed could be photographed and yet made incredibly artful images.
“I remember seeing those photos and being really affected by them,” he said. “I realized that it’s possible to actually take photographs that make a difference. If you can make the photograph good enough and tell the story well enough, you can show people things that they would never get a chance to see. That’s what got me into photojournalism.”
His work has been published in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Newsweek and Outside.com. In 1999, he was part of a team of journalists at The Hartford Courant awarded the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of a shooting rampage.
Kodas is currently writing the book Megafire about increasingly destructive, deadly and frequent wildfires. The impetus to write a book about these fires developed from interviews for magazine articles with the scientists who are studying the worrisome change.
What inspires Kodas to teach is his firm belief that the fourth estate—journalism—is an absolute requirement for American democracy to work.
The CEJ is set up like a small newsroom, where his students do real reporting and get their work published in local newspapers and other media.
“I am thrilled to be a part of the CEJ and teaching in the new College of Media, Communication and Information,” he said. “Give us motivated, smart students who are determined to help journalism flourish and we can go out and have a real impact on the world.”