A missing reporter and his vital foreign work

December 22, 2012 

Austin Tice was still serving in the Marines in Afghanistan when he started to feel the pull of journalism. Fascinated with the Middle East and frustrated with news coverage that he thought was too often shallow, he wondered whether he could do better.

“It always drove Austin crazy when they’d say on the news this couldn’t be confirmed because it’s too difficult to report,’’ said Marc Tice, Austin’s father. “He thought, ‘I’ve got the ability to do this. I can get in there and get these stories.’ ’’

Four months ago, Tice was captured in Syria delivering on that commitment with fresh and compelling freelance reports regularly published in the Washington Post and McClatchy newspapers. While the wait for news on his whereabouts drags on, we wanted to make the case for why this work is so vital and why he should be released.

We also want to draw attention to the delicate role of foreign reporters in places like Syria. Understanding the savage tableau of war helps citizens, societies and governments to make judgments and set policies that affect millions of people. At its best, journalism may save lives by making the costs and consequences of war more vivid.

Inevitably, of course, journalists take risks when they cover wars. We’ve lost friends and colleagues in battle; the brother of one of us, a photographer, was wounded seriously 20 years ago in Sarajevo. But the risks should not include kidnapping, torture or murder.

And yet, so far this year, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, 67 journalists have been killed in direct relation to their work.

In Syria, where Austin Tice is missing, the committee says the number killed in combat or murdered is 28, a number approaching the worst annual tally of the Iraq war. Foreign and Syrian reporters alike have been killed. Even the head of Libya’s state-run SANA agency was assassinated. This week, NBC’s chief of correspondents, Richard Engel, and his crew escaped a kidnapping in Syria after a gunfight between their captors and rebels.

Many of the journalists at risk in conflict zones today aren’t on staff at big, traditional news organizations. The uprisings and revolutions in the Middle East have attracted freelance journalists who don’t need a mainstream news outlet to reach an audience. New technologies enable them to file video directly to YouTube or report battles in real-time to followers on Twitter or Facebook.

Like many freelancers, Tice followed an unusual path to foreign reporting, an assignment that can take decades to earn on a big newspaper’s staff. He’d left the military and attended two years of Georgetown law school when he decided to drop everything and see if he could make it as a freelance correspondent in the Mideast.

Equipped with cameras, an exquisite writing talent and an instinct for finding his way to the center of things, he slipped over the Turkish border into Syria in May.

His work was courageous and professional, contributing to the montage of truth that has shaped the world’s understanding of the conflict in Syria. Though he traveled mostly with the rebels, Tice was as interested in one side as the other, in capturing opposing viewpoints and casualties.

He focused on how the Syrian rebels were gaining momentum over the course of the summer. He also helped to break the news in August that rebels were carrying out executions and torture. He was often on the front lines of the conflict. He celebrated his 31st birthday, he noted in his last Twitter posts before his capture in mid-August, to the sounds of bombs landing nearby.

Information on his captivity, and even on who is holding him, has been hard to confirm despite constant efforts of his family, our news organizations and other contacts in the U.S. and other governments.

Tice was in the country without a visa, as have been the majority of those covering this story. As his captivity heads into its fifth month, he has long since paid the price if this is seen as a violation of the country’s borders.

We believe his own story makes the best argument for his release.

He surely met the high standards of quality and fairness he first thought about back in Afghanistan. His work served both Syria and the wider world with reporting that cannot exist without dedicated reporters like Austin Tice. Those responsible for his capture and detention have a moral obligation to return him to his family, his friends and his work.

Marcus Brauchli is executive editor of the Washington Post, and Anders Gyllenhaal is the vice president for news at McClatchy. They can be reached at Brauchlim@Washpost.com and Agyllenhaal@McClatchy.com

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service