The Rolling Stone Cover That Tried to Win Journalism
Now nobody will ever forget what Jahar Tsarnaev's facial hair looks like.
I'm pretty sure that if Time had run the same cover and
darkened the photo, the outrage would have been far less than what is spilling
forth now. People have already been noting that the same image ran on the front
page of The New York Times back in May, accompanying
a background piece on the alleged bomber.
Goes to show how perception of a publication's
identity frames how people receive its stories.
Rolling Stone does plenty of edgy long form news
pieces, and maybe not always in good taste, but people viewing it as primarily
a music magazine are now reading the cover as terrorist = rock star instead of
terrorist = subject of a story coming at a figure from an unexpected angle,
though this isn't even the first outlet to depict Tsarnaev's background through
a narrative lens open to images other than the damning.
The ethical questions at play are ungainly, but
most of the anger seems to have centered around one of the most basic issues:
how victims, victims' families and others affected by the bombing will respond,
on an emotional level, to the cover.
I feel like this is what we often mean by
"taste," because who knows if the journalistic merits of the piece
will outlast or outweigh the initial ugliness of the cover. People are
responding viscerally, as if someone had behaved insensitively toward a victim
walking down the street, or at the airport, and perhaps that's appropriate.
How this cover came about is the story of all
journalism produced in an information economy where you have to get noticed to
get read, and you have to shout louder, smarter, and more surprisingly over the
media already inundating your audience. And these were the demands even before
the internet; this is the game that magazines play. It just happens to really
piss people off sometimes.
Whether this kind of freewheeling, agitating media – in general – serves the public interest is a much bigger question than
whether this particular cover was a poor ethical choice, but it should be
understood that such controversy and perhaps bad taste are inevitable in the
unnerving little place where the ethics of mass media, the freedom of creative
expression, the viability of journalistic enterprise and an institution's financial livelihood are all at stake.