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Outrage over Rolling Stone cover misplaced

Posted: Friday, Jul 19th, 2013

When Rolling Stone magazine put the photo of alleged terrorist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the front cover of its most recent issue, it was merely to supplement a feature story about him.

It was intended to help tell the story of how a good-looking, intelligent young immigrant became what might accurately be described as a monster. 

And yet the image has sparked worldwide outrage by people claiming that the shot, taken by Tsarnaev himself for his Twitter page, glamorized him and, by extension, his actions.

It does nothing of the sort.

Being in the news industry, perhaps I have become inured to tragic images. But over the course of my 7-year career, I have come to appreciate how valuable a compelling photo can be to help tell a story.

And Tsarnaev’s photo is indeed compelling. His is the face of the young men with whom I attended college. With whom I have worked various jobs and with whom I have shared meals. 

Were I to have seen him without the context of the tragic bombing that killed four and injured scores of people, I wouldn’t have given him a second glance.

In an intro to the well-researched, in-depth 11,000-word story, the magazine’s editors issued the following statement:

“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.”

And that is the sum of it.

To those who are outraged, I assure you that I understand. I have two young sons, and if they were to be hurt by a misguided extremist such as Tsarnaev, my rage would be boundless. I would thirst for blood.

But I would also seek to understand what happened. To do that, I would in part turn to the news.

It is the job of journalists to tell relevant stories, and part of those stories are told through images. Those might be a vehicle collision or a house on fire, or perhaps a political leader caught breaking the law.

Never would I fault the news media for its quest to tell these stories. Rolling Stone has become known throughout the years as a stronghold for excellent journalism, with stories by writers as Hunter S. Thompson and Michael Hastings gracing the magazine. The magazine in 1970 featured a story of the Patty Hearst abduction and her subsequent arrest for aiding her kidnappers.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, both bare-bottomed, appeared on the cover when the magazine featured an interview with the former Beatle. Work by photographers such as Annie Leibovitz, meanwhile, has appeared on the cover.

Moreover, Charles Manson’s face made the cover when the mass murderer made the news. I wonder whether the same outrage existed then.

In other media, the image of a lone protester facing a tank in Tiananmen Square in China has become a cultural icon, as has the 1968 image of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Viet Cong prisoner during the Vietnam War.

It would be a tragic dereliction of our duty as journalists, and would fly in the face of the First Amendment, were we to flinch and censor an image solely based on concern that it might offend. 

I have heard some critics say that images of victims might have been better on the Rolling Stone cover. 

I could not disagree more. 

The victims, both living and dead, should have their own places on the covers of magazines, and indeed they have held those places several times over.

A story about Tsarnaev demands a photograph of him. Rolling Stone chose the one they thought would help tell the story.

And so I plead with the readers to first read the Rolling Stone story about Tsarnaev, and then to examine closely whatever outrage you might righteously be feeling.  

Because outrage without knowledge is just unhealthy vitriol.

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