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Rolling Stone’s cover: unethical or misunderstood?

When Rolling Stone magazine released its latest issue with the cover featuring a picture of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the backlash was immediate. Social media blew up and reports soon followed that stores like CVS and Walgreens wouldn’t carry the issue in magazine stands.

The reason the magazine put the picture on its cover is simple; it’s the publication’s main cover story. Some critics argued the picture casts him in a sympathetic light, or glorifies him in much the same manner that Jim Morrison graced Rolling Stone. But this isn’t the first time the magazine has put a murderer on their cover. A 1970 cover features a picture of Charles Manson, while the New York Times published the same picture of Tsarnaev on the front page of a Sunday edition in May with the headline: “The Dark Side, Carefully Masked.”

Is it the medium? Do magazines have a responsibility to consider their images more carefully than newspapers because there’s an entertainment factor? The bigger theme surrounding this is whether it’s ethical to publish an image with the knowledge that it might stir the pot in a way that could be emotionally harmful to people. Weighing in on the ethics and issues surrounding the recent cover are Kevin Smith, ethic committee chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists; Robert Drechsel, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Samir Husni, aka “Mr. Magazine,” director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi:

Q: Do ethics come into play when a cover like Rolling Stone’s recent one is released?

Smith: “I think ethics comes into play whenever you make important decisions that can affect the telling of a story. The cover of this magazine is used to sell the story so, yes, there is a large ethical component to this case study. In this case, I think it’s important that the staff not only made the decision to use the photo based on sound journalism story telling rationale, but that they greatly considered the ethics. In that vein, they should be asking what harm would be done if they used this image, who would be harmed, if using the image justifies the harm created, if another image can convey the same impact without causing as much harm, and can they adequately defend the decision?” 

Drechsel: “Certainly. A publication’s editors know a cover will have impact; they want it to have impact, to attract readers, to draw attention to a major story.  And there is nothing inherently wrong with any of those goals. The question of ethics arises with the Rolling Stone cover because editors have to anticipate that the cover may also have harmful impact, which creates an ethical question. The cover (and story) may cause emotional distress to some readers, may be perceived as insensitive or even a sort of glorification of someone who should not be glorified. Then the question becomes, given the possible negative impact one might anticipate, is there still ethical justification for using the cover. I’ve looked at the online version of the cover and story, and it seems clear to me from the editors’ statement preceding the story that Rolling Stone did carefully contemplate the impact of the cover and story. One might disagree with that decision, but it appears to have been reached reasonably and thoughtfully.”

Husni: “I do not think it is a matter of ethics. We have the tendency to get mad at any magazine that tries in one way or another to ‘glorify’ a criminal or an accused criminal. The American public, regardless of whether a picture is doctored, will also get mad at having the ‘bad or evil’ on the cover…Remember the backlash when TIME had the Columbine killers on the cover. The public does not have the ‘news’ sense when looking or judging the cover. They think with their emotions, while the news folks think with their brains and pocket books.”

Q: Why is it that newspapers can run stories featuring the same picture on their front page, but when Rolling Stone does it they are vilified?

Smith: “That’s a great question. I don’t have an answer for that. I think the process should be the same in every case. Newspapers should run through the same gamut of ethical decision making and come to their respective decisions. If anything, you’d think RS [Rolling Stone] would get a break given that it’s a magazine that tends to bend toward irreverence at times. No one is going to confuse RS with the NYT [New York Times.] They have an edgy play anyway.”

Drechsel: One thing you have to do is distinguish coverage of breaking news and related angles as events are unfolding, and stories that resurrect a painful experience after the passage of a bit of time. If newspapers weren’t criticized, it might be because readers felt a strong need as things unfolded to better understand what was happening and why. Things calm down a bit, and then Rolling Stone comes along and resurrects a painful experience. Plus, I suppose Rolling Stone still has a maverick, more counter-cultural image that somehow, when connected with this particular story, leads people to suspect its motives more than they would suspect a newspaper’s motives. I think the editor’s note reflects that very concern. But obviously, no one can know the answer to your question for sure.”

Husni: Somehow, there is this misconception that newspapers are the place for bad things, bad people, etc., while magazines are the place for good things, victims rather than murderers, etc. As the digital age changes everything, magazines and their covers in print have to capture and captivate the attention of the audience. We are too quick to vilify everything these days. Remember the nursing mom on the cover of TIME. Social media with all its branches now makes it so much easier for folks to say the first thing that comes to their mind, be it right or wrong. Media, on the other hand, is paying the price. If media is going to follow what folks say on social media, that will be the end of journalism as we know it or as it should be.”

Q: Does the media give criminals like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev more power by putting pictures of him on their covers, or are they merely doing their job and reporting the news?

Smith: “I don’t know about power. It certainly can give them attention. I guess there is a certain sense of power in getting attention. But, the media can take it away. Look at the OJ Simpson photo that Time used, photoshopping OJ’s mug shot to make him look more sinister and thereby conveying a message of guilt. Or look at the cover photo People used of Trayvon Martin, using a school photo of him when he was 8 to 10 [years old] to convey a message of innocence. This big, Latino bully killed this innocent young man. So magazines have a history of using cover photos to create ‘visual editorializing’ and so my question is what were you trying to say about this story by using this photo, and did you fully consider the consequences, and if you did, why did you move forward with it?”

Drechsel: “There may be circumstances in which publicity can in some way empower bad people, but I can’t imagine how this Rolling Stone cover could give Dzhokkar Tsarnaev any power at all. I seriously doubt that anyone looking at the cover is going to see this guy as a celebrity, a role model or start thinking gee, maybe he’s not such a bad guy after all. What I do think is a shame is that there is so much focus on the cover that the extensive story itself is being largely ignored.

I don’t like the argument that the media are ‘merely doing their job and reporting the news.’ That gives short shrift to the intellectual work of deciding what’s news and how and when it should be reported. No one can escape ethical issues simply saying ‘I was only doing my job.’”

Husni:The folks who committed that horrible act are killers and murderers and not a figment of our imagination. Just avoiding putting their pictures is not going to lessen their horrible crimes. Our job is to report on the good, the bad, you name it. It will not be journalism if we are going to put it for a vote or listen to the majority vote on news topics or covers.”

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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