Entertainment / Journalism / Media

Rolling Stone’s Unsettling Cover Choice

Photo from bostonherald.com

Photo from bostonherald.com

In J-School you talk a lot about ethics, especially when it comes to jarring or gruesome images. Should they be run above the fold? Should they be run at all? Through all those exercises, we learned that while whether you choose to run the photo or not is ultimately subjective and a choice on the part of the art and editorial team, but the publication does have a responsibility to take the public’s potential reaction and opinion into consideration.

Well, yesterday presented us with a real-life example of all those J-School ethics exercises.

When I first saw the cover photo of the August 2013 issue of Rolling Stone with alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover, I didn’t think much of it. I just kind of shrugged it off as a desperate attempt to sell magazines with a provocative cover, which Rolling Stone does frequently, although it’s typically more of a sexual nature. But I saw a couple of Facebook friends post angrily about the cover, saying it was disrespectful and makes Rolling Stone lose credibility. One of the comments on one of the Facebook posts said “Is it really Rolling Stone‘s fault if people are buying it?”  Which got me thinking: “Yes, it is actually Rolling Stone‘s fault.” Yes, magazine are a business. Yes, that business has been faltering for many years so it makes sense that they’ll do damn near anything to see newsstand sales go up, but I hold Rolling Stone in higher regard than that. They’re very aware of their impact and the responsibility they have as a media outlet to readers and people affected by this awful tragedy. This was a very specific editorial decision. One that wasn’t made in haste. It involved a lot of opinions and a lot of discussion: I’m sure of that. What I’m not sure of is why they came to the conclusion of running this grainy probable-selfie of a man on trial for terrorism instead of a Terry Richardson photo of Robin Thicke, Jay-Z, Willie Nelson or anyone else mention on the cover of this issue.

I’m not arguing that the story should not have been included in the magazine at all. I’m sure it’s a fascinating read that’s well-written and well-reported, and I probably would have been 100 percent OK with just a cover line teasing to an inside story. I’m also not in the camp of people who think murders should not be written about at all, I think it’s totally valid to display facts about a person, a case to try and figure out how it all went so wrong. But the editorial and artistic decision to make it the cover photo baffles me and it kind of reeks of desperation. It’s not crude or gross. The image’s photo is subtly startling and brings up a lot of interesting debates about whether having a murderer on the cover of a popular music (and politics) magazine portrays him as a rock star or a teenage heartthrob, and what that says about American culture.

I’m very interested in the reasoning behind it, and I look forward to the statement that Rolling Stone will release about it, provided it pisses enough people off.

I’ll post an update if that statement is made public. I think it’s an important debate for journalists and journalists-to-be.


Here’s the statement that Rolling Stone released yesterday:

“Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone‘s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens.”

It addresses the story, which I never had a problem with, but it doesn’t explain the choice for cover image, which I think was what most people were upset or confused by, including myself.

I’m not as angry or amped up as some people are about it, merely curious and confused by this choice, but I will say that hearing the general public discuss media ethics was really interesting and very important.


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