THE BLOG
11/26/2014 02:42 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

The Price of Truth: Journalist Tragedies in Foreign Nations

About three months ago two American journalists were held captive and beheaded on camera in a matter of three weeks. The deaths of James Foley and Steven Sotloff were tragically publicized as an ISIS threat against the continuance of U.S. airstrikes on Iraqi militants. For years reporters have made immeasurable sacrifices amidst foreign combat. However, the brutalities journalists have endured in the Middle East in the past year have forced a reexamination of foreign reporting and redefined these dangers as a commanding media crisis in today's industry.

Foley had disappeared in Syria in 2012 while covering the country's civil war, and Sotloff was abducted in 2013 while reporting on Muslim suffering. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in the last three years more than 70 journalists have been killed while reporting in Syria, and more have gone undocumented. Deputy Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists Robert Mahoney wrote in September, "Now that the initial wave of revulsion at the beheading of two young journalists has passed, the international media is wringing its hands and asking how it can spare others the heartbreak of the families of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff."

He continued, "It's time for reporters, particularly freelancers, and the editors who commission them, to be honest about risk. . . . [There is a] need for the entire media industry to do something to protect reporters."

Industry leaders have been aware of this need for change for the past several years. According to a study done by the American Journalism Review in 2011, the number of foreign journalists employed by U.S. newspapers and wire services dropped from 307 to 234 between 2003 and 2010, and since 1998 twenty papers and companies have shut down their foreign bureaus entirely. Consequently, there has been a noticeable increase in international freelance reporting as mainstream conglomerates have decided against foreign missions for staff writers.

Mahoney, however, has advocated for greater involvement at the corporate level. He wrote, "It's . . . time for those news organizations that for financial and liability reasons want a strictly arm's-length relationship with stringers to recognize that they have a duty of care toward those they send or encourage to go to the front lines."

Journalists have suffered torture, pain and starvation at the hands of foreign politics more violently and publicly in the past year perhaps than ever before. The distinction between "front line" and safety in modern warfare has become increasingly hazy, and the numbers of journalist tragedies in foreign nations speak for themselves.

The recent captivity crises and undue murders have forced the industry to examine the fundamental motivations of the business and re-orient itself toward a clear vision of what is expected -- and what is realistic. The impact of recent events raises a significant question to journalists, newspapers, media organizations and political powerhouses. All players must decide how best to tread the line of duty versus safety and prevent future crises of this caliber.

It's a seemingly impossible question; what can we do to prevent future crises while still promoting thorough and truthful investigative reporting?

As a student at Penn State University, I turned to the expertise of the school's journalism professors to address this question.

College of Communications Dean, Professor Marie Hardin noted the current protective efforts of the major organizations as well as the inevitable dangers in foreign settings. She said, "I think media organizations have become increasingly cautious, and we will see that trend continue.

"These kinds of incidents surely prompt media organizations to think much more carefully about sending journalists into these areas, and journalists cannot help but realize the very real dangers in taking such assignments. The fear, of course, is that such violence will have a chilling effect on the important work that journalists and media organizations need to do in these areas to keep the world informed.

"Journalists need to be well prepared and made fully aware of the dangers they'll be facing -- and to be professionally trained on how to deal with a variety of threats."

College of Communications Interim Associate Dean for Undergraduate and Graduate Education, Professor Ford Risley added, "Certainly journalists are being more careful . . . but I think the best news organizations are always going to send journalists into harms way -- it's just what good news organizations do. It's been that way for a long time. Fortunately there are journalists courageous enough to go where it can be very dangerous.

"Moving forward, we need to provide journalists all the protection that we can, making sure they aren't wandering into crazy, extreme settings - which can be hard to do. Some journalists aren't thinking about their own safety, they're just caught up in the story."

In regards to the potential of technological aid and advancements in foreign reporting, Risley added, "I think drones have a lot of potential - it's amazing what they can do. Can they be helpful in covering a foreign conflict -- you bet. Absolutely. Drones are one of the most exciting news gathering tools that have come around. At least for photographers and videographers, it makes their jobs safer."

It's clear that there can be no predetermined equation or protocol for decision-making while reporting in foreign territory. Even James Foley had commented on the difficulty of finding a reasonable balance between the obligations of discovering truth and avoiding danger.

According to Business Insider, in 2011 Foley spoke to students of his alma mater, Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. He said, "Conflict journalism is very important. We need to know what's going on in the world. We need to know the injustice."

But he also warned against the risks - risks he sadly was not able to avoid. He said, "It's not worth your life, it's not worth seeing your mother, father and sister bawling. It's not worth these things no matter what romantic ideal you have, no matter what ethic you think you have" (The Huffington Post).

It seems the price of truth cannot be determined today -- but will be questioned and contested for years to come.