CNN host Anderson Cooper told a crowd at Memorial Coliseum on Monday night that his reporting might not have changed much about the world, but sharing the stories of everyday people undergoing immense challenges is important to him.
"It changes how you see the world. It changes how you see yourself in the world," Cooper said of the wars, earthquakes, floods and other disasters he has covered.
"I found there was value in bearing witness to people's struggles," Cooper told moderator Beth Barnes, director of the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. "... It's very easy to look away."
Cooper said seeing those problems makes one aware that life's circumstances could change in a moment.
That was once something he feared, but now he sees it as "a bond that we all share."
"We all dangle by a delicate thread," he said. "That thread is as thin as the walls of a human heart."
The host of Anderson Cooper 360 and correspondent for 60 Minutes was brought to UK by the Student Activities Board, which billed the event as the first in its SpeakBlue Distinguished Speaker series.
Cooper said that when he graduated from college, he didn't have a job lined up, so he "made a list of all the things I wanted in a job and in life."
He made himself a fake press pass and ended up working alone in places like Burma and Somalia, covering one war after another. "I was in places I had no business being," he said. "I was very lucky."
He later was hired by ABC, then CNN.
His coverage of Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti and the Iraq war have all garnered praise.
Cooper said his own experience with tragedy played a part in his career path.
He shared how his father died when he was 10 and his older brother committed suicide in a public way, jumping off a New York balcony as their mother looked on. (His father was writer Wyatt Emory Cooper; his mother is Gloria Vanderbilt.)
"I felt like I spoke a language of loss," he said.
Being in places where life and death hung in the balance appealed to him. "There's something about war that it's a heightened reality. It makes regular life seem incredibly dull," he said.
It also became part of his mission to tell the stories of people who died. "I sort of want people to remember the names of victims," he said.
Many of the questions Barnes posed to Cooper were submitted electronically by students in the audience. One asked what advice he had for young journalists.
"Never underestimate the value of outhustling everyone else around you," he said, noting he moved up at CNN by volunteering "for every assignment no one else wanted."
Cooper said he rarely takes vacations, preferring to travel for work. "I would much rather go to a place and tell a story in that place," he said. "Regular life is not as interesting as storytelling."