Religion, Foreign Policy and the Media in a Post 9-11 Context

Richard Chacon
Boston Globe, Deputy Foreign Affairs Editor and Niemann Fellow, Harvard University

Date: October 12, 2004

Event Recap

Taking a break from his studies as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Richard Chacon, Deputy Foreign Affairs Editor of the Boston Globe came to Boston College on October 12 to address a lunch seminar at the Boisi Center. His topic was “Religion, Foreign Policy and the Media in a Post 9- 11 Context” and his remarks centered mainly on the challenges that the media faces in reporting global events since 9-11.

In Chacon’s view, prior to the destruction of the Twin Towers, much of America’s foreign policy focus was still influenced by an east vs west and communism vs. democracy mindset. Since the fall of communism we struggled to define where our foreign policy priorities lay and consequently were slow to get involved in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Haiti. The attacks of 9-11 produced shock, anger and a search for explanations and the simplest explanation that could be found was in religion.

Whether or not the religion explanation is a useful one, Chacon believes that some adjustment to current media coverage is still required. On the one hand, conversations are often too quick to skip over a deeper understanding of the goals and motives of the religious mind and reduce explanations to economic and political inequality. On the other hand he also feels that the Globe and other media outlets get too caught up in demonizing small religious minority groups, neglecting the larger majority which might be moderate. As a corrective, he pointed to a recent in-depth analysis of moderate Islam submitted by the Globe’s Jerusalem bureau chief.

Chacon also spent time talking about the appalling lack of resources devoted to global issues in most media corporations. The Globe has six full time foreign staff reporters which is relatively small for a regional paper. Two are in Baghdad, one is in Johannesburg, one is in Jerusalem, one is in Beijing and one is in Bogota. As the emphasis in foreign policy has moved from an east/west axis to a north/south axis the role of the foreign correspondent has also changed dramatically. When Chacon covered Latin America he used to cover 40 countries. Correspondents in these positions are now asked to develop a thematic expertise as well as covering a regional specialty. Yet despite the thinness of resources on the ground, economic constraints are making it harder for newspapers to financially justify supporting foreign bureaus, meaning that places like Dallas and Houston no longer offer first hand coverage of global issues and rely instead on the AP, Reuters or NY Times wire services. This means a narrower range of stories and styles dominating our media content.

Chacon’s perspective has been shaped by his role as the Boston Globe's deputy foreign editor since July 2001 where he helps coordinate the paper’s international news coverage. Prior to this he served the Globe covering Latin America, higher education and Boston politics. Chacon has also served as an editorial writer for New York Newsday, where he specialized in cultural affairs, local politics and sports between 1992-1994. In 1992 he served as deputy media director for the 1992 Democratic National Convention, and as a speechwriter in the New York City Mayor’s office. Chacon is currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, where he is studying the relationships between religion, public health and the shaping of American foreign policy around the world.