Rolling Stone announced yesterday that it would place a picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the front cover of its next issue. Tsarnaev’s friends knew him better as Jahar, an amiable, down-to-earth nineteen year old Chechen from Kyrgyzstan who enjoyed wrestling, chasing girls and video games; but the wider public now know him as Suspect #2, the second man suspected of killing three and injuring over three hundred in the bombing attack that took place at the finish line of the Boston marathon in April this year.
In terms of deaths and injuries combined, the tragedy went down as the seventh most severe terrorist attack in American history and the fact, too, that the blasts took place within the magnificent setting of the Boston marathon – a world-famous, brilliantly colourful display of sporting achievement and international unity – made it particularly harrowing. Following a three-day manhunt that caused a police lockdown in Boston and resulted in a shoot-out that killed Dzhokhar’s brother and accomplice and injured several police officers, Suspect #2 was found and arrested, and immediately became the country’s most hated man.
The country’s most hated man might not be the first person to spring to mind when deciding whom to ‘star’ on the front cover of a major cultural magazine, however the editors of Rolling Stone, the biweekly publication that fetched over a million sales in 2012, released a pre-emptive, defensive statement that said the cover story “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”. It was also stated that the purpose of the article was to “gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens”.
The nature of media coverage of major world events such as the Boston bombings is pivotal to the public’s comprehension and knowledge of issues such as crime, poverty and religion. It is therefore crucial for journalists – especially those who carry such a large and, importantly, young readership – to report responsibly and effectively in order to avoid misrepresentation. Nevertheless, it is also absolutely necessary for journalists never to shy away from the coverage of what can often be horrific and offensive material, just for the sake of those for whom such an event might be personally upsetting. Publishing a cover article on the psychology and circumstance of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a respectable move for Rolling Stone magazine, and one that has been made in an appropriate and insightful manner.
The nature of the accompanying cover photo, however, is problematic. Rather than echoing the style of a criminal mug shot, it depicts a handsome, stylish Tsarnaev whose features and nonchalant expression are not unlike those of many of the revered cultural icons Rolling Stone has placed on its covers in the past; stars such as Johnny Depp and Jim Morrison. This is precisely where the controversy emerges. Is putting a killer on the front of a globally respected pop-culture magazine an insult to the bereaved? Or worse, a deadly mistake? Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is not the first public enemy to make it onto the front cover of a major magazine. Prominent examples include Adolf Hitler as TIME Magazine’s Man of The Year in 1938, and Charles Manson dominating the front page of Life Magazine one week in 1969. Many believe that mass media coverage of gun violence and terrorism in America, such as this, is a major contributor to the very proliferation of the events themselves. Young, aspiring murderers and psychotics might be spurred on by the guarantee of facial ubiquity.
These concerns have been voiced by hundreds of Rolling Stone fans on the magazine’s Facebook page. The controversial editorial decision has caused an acute online response and numerous demands for the boycott of what some are calling an “Anti-American” propaganda campaign. What’s more, several nation-wide American retailers and even some in Europe have announced that they will either refuse to sell this particular issue, or stop their sales for good. For example, CVS, a US pharmaceutical company that usually stocks Rolling Stone published a statement that said, “we believe this is the right decision out of respect for the victims of the attack and their loved ones”.
The cover article is fascinating and appropriate, but that photo could prove to be a catastrophic mistake. Despite his plea in court, investigators are in very little doubt that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was indeed responsible for the destruction that shook America on April 15th. If this is the case, he has now, thanks to Rolling Stone, achieved what a number of killers have sought in recent years: fame and notoriety. As well as being a terrorist and a mass murderer, Jahar is now irreversibly a celebrity Rolling Stone cover star.