The surviving Boston bomber, Dzhokar Tsarnaev, has been featured on the cover of too many periodicals to count, but it was his appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone that has garnered the most publicity and outrage yet. Out-of-context, one might easily assume the young man on the cover is a musician or actor and not a zealot who caused the deaths of four people and the injuries of 280 others. The image of Tsarnaev with his tousled dark hair and fashionable t-shirt, lounging against a wall, could be the self-snapped photo of any typical American teenager. Which is precisely why it was chosen by the editors of Rolling Stone to accompany a feature that highlights how he was a young man with seemingly unlimited promise. However, because Rolling Stone is known primarily as a music and entertainment magazine many responded to this cover with outrage, claiming the magazine was “glorifying” a killer.
Months earlier, the same photo was on the cover of The New York Times and there was nary a word of complaint. This is perhaps because, biases aside, The New York Times is seen unquestionably as a journalistic periodical whereas Rolling Stone isn’t. Although the photo ran in the NYT almost three full weeks after Tsarnaev was taken into custody, no one questioned why his picture would be in the paper, let alone on the front page. Rolling Stone is in fact a journalistic outlet and has been since the late 1960s. In fact, one could argue that it is more relevant journalistically than it is with respect to music and entertainment. The headline on the cover reads, “THE BOMBER, How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam, and Became a Monster (emphasis mine).” The article that accompanied the photo—which many of the outraged couldn’t be bothered to read—is exactly that, an in-depth story featuring interviews from those who knew Tsarnaev and attempts to provide insight into the mind of a terrorist.
Whenever there is a mass killing, not specifically related to Islamic terrorism, there is a firestorm of coverage, with news networks broadcasting coverage round-the-clock, often repeating the same information over and over again. Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Jared Loughner, and other mass-killers are tossed on the front pages of papers and the covers of magazines. Loughner was on the cover of TIME on January 24, 2011 two weeks after the Arizona shooting that injured former US Representative Gabrielle Giffords. The cover featured Loughner’s mugshot dressed-up by Sean McCabe to look like pop-art. After James Holmes shot up a theater in Colorado, the NY Post put his picture on multiple front pages of their paper and referred to him as “The Joker.” Yet, there was nary a word of complaint.
Only such bastions of journalistic integrity as the late film critic, Roger Ebert and radio personalities Opie & Anthony of Sirius/XM have spoken out consistently on this subject. “My outrage is towards the mainstream media,” radio host Gregg “Opie” Hughes said on July 18, while discussing the controversy. “I would have never seen this cover if it wasn’t plastered on every news program.” In celebrity interviews and explicit discussions, the radio hosts have often spoken out against the media’s habit of endlessly publicizing mass-killers on the airwaves and in print. In a review of a Gus Van Sant movie about a fictionalized school-shooting Ebert told a story about how after Columbine he was asked if violent movies influenced the killers. “No, I said, I wouldn’t say that,” Ebert replied. He wrote, “Events like this, if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own…it becomes a major media event.” If a film critic and two supposed “shock-jocks” can see this, why does no one else?
After a 2009 school shooting in Germany, Charlie Brooker—a British satirist and journalist—ran a segment focusing on how the media covers mass killings. In the program Booker said, “Repeatedly showing us a killer’s face isn’t news, it’s rubber-necking.” In the same segment, he features comments from forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz. “We have had 20 years of mass-murderers, throughout which I have repeatedly told CNN and our other media: if you don’t want to propagate more mass murders don’t start the story with sirens blaring, don’t make this 24/7 coverage…don’t have photographs of the killer.” Rolling Stone was not intentionally glorifying Tzarnaev and may have had the best of journalistic intentions, but the fact remains that this type of coverage is going to encourage copycats.
The controversy as it is being reported by the media is painfully ironic, because as they rail against the Rolling Stone, they display the cover multiple times per report. Police photographer Sean Murphy released images from the standoff, showing a bloodied Tsarnaev surrendering to the police, marksman’s red laser dot clearly visible on his forehead. The media may not be “glorifying” these killers, but they are certainly milking the public interest in these real-life super-villains for ratings success. Of course, the story of these events is newsworthy and should be reported, but the ways in which these stories are covered today go beyond journalism and into the voyeuristic.
Ironically, a piece like Janet Reitman’s for Rolling Stone is one of the right ways to do it. The reporter took the time to interview sources, check her facts, and provide analysis that is separated from the intense emotions arising immediately after the event. What is clear is that if the ways these stories are covered doesn’t change, there will be plenty more like them.
Author: JOSHUA M. PATTON