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The Art Direction of Controversy: Tsarnaev on the <i>Rolling Stone</i> Cover

Walking the line between what's right and what's wrong for media is a difficult job. Where's the definitive line between what's acceptable and what takes it too far?
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When you work your dream job, you're certain to have specific goals for your career. An architect may wax poetic about the day they'll design a skyscraper that plays amidst the stars. A musician dreams of performing on the stage of Carnegie Hall. As a designer, you might aim to brand a global company, champion a campaign to raise awareness of a cause close to your heart, or even become creative director of the magazine that has inspired you throughout your life. But usually, the plan doesn't involve causing distress or disturbance on a national scale.

In Rolling Stone's recent, controversial August issue, alleged Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (aka "Jahar") is on the cover, a space usually reserved for music icons and legends of pop culture who've 'made it big' -- a place of pride and romance for aspiring actors and musicians. The coveted magazine cover has now been graced with the face of a young man who many feel deserves neither the status nor the attention that it awards -- as proven by the newsstands that have refused to carry the issue. The nature of Rolling Stone as an entertainment magazine holds considerable weight in this controversy. Although Rolling Stone hosts hard-hitting, award-winning journalism, it is best known in the public eye as a pop culture journal, especially after co-founder Jann Wenner retooled the magazine in the '90s to appeal to a younger demographic. With the faces of Justin Bieber and the Jonas brothers peering out from previous issues, that's not hard to believe. Serious journalism can be coupled with pop culture, but to the public (only part of which actually reads the interior), the cover seems to speak louder than the story.


And yet, this is not the first time that Rolling Stone has profiled a killer on the cover. In fact, in 1970 the magazine won a National Magazine Award for an article interviewing mass murderer and cult leader Charles Manson, who was also featured on the front. His photo was no dirtied mug shot of a convicted criminal, but rather a stylized black and white rendering, with a bold yellow circle juxtaposed overtop, portraying him in a way reminiscent of the medieval depictions of saints. This decision, no doubt, was meant as a visual translation of his cult background. But there was no national movement to boycott the magazine in 1970. No social media backlash (#boycottRollingStone has been trending on Twitter since the August issue's cover was publicly released). The magazine did what a magazine intends to do: inform the public about a relevant person of the time, providing details and background so that he could be understood.


Rolling Stone's latest magazine cover walks the line between informing the public and idolizing "The Bomber." Rather than an artistic rendering or criminal mug shot, the teen is portrayed in precisely the same manner as today's movie stars and musicians: tousled, unkempt hair, a neatly manicured goatee, aloof attitude and a screenprinted t-shirt. For anyone without previous knowledge of his identity or his current place in mass media, he might appear to be the newest teen heartthrob on the scene. The fact that he also has a strong legion of young, female followers toting "Free Jahar" signs and tweets doesn't help either (just visit @FreeJahar's Twitter page). "If they had used the police mugshot, there would be no issue," said Bob Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, to NBC News Contributor Steve James. And perhaps he's right. If the cover photo had instead been one taken by Massachusetts State Police Sgt. Sean Murphy, in which Tsarnaev is shown emerging from the boat where he holed up from police during his manhunt, it's unlikely there would have been any public outrage. But those photos were only released after the cover caused such uproar.

This speaks directly to the power of design in the media. Because contemporary art direction tends to style actors and musicians in a certain way, the public has come to identify them by this style. From pop culture icons like Bob Dylan to modern day movie stars like Robert Pattinson, the unkempt, unruly look is synonymous -- almost expected. So to use it with Tsarnaev is the root of the problem for Rolling Stone. It's not just that he's featured on their cover; it's the light that particular photo casts on him that's causing such a commotion. A simple art direction decision with exponentially problematic ramifications?

The opinion among publishing consultants and those in the media seems to be the same: Rolling Stone will not suffer for this decision. Although the magazine has been banned in CVS and other retailers in Boston, ultimately they won't lose any revenue because the bulk of their profit comes from subscriptions. And the social stigma and curiosity provoked by the confrontational cover will likely only increase sales from customers who hadn't previously read the magazine.

Was it too soon? Or is that what timely journalism is all about? Tsarnaev's verdict is still unknown, with him recently pleading not guilty in court. But for those in journalism and others interested in the trial proceedings, it makes the article even more timely and relevant.

Walking the line between what's right and what's wrong for media is a difficult job. Where's the definitive line between what's acceptable and what takes it too far? In this particular case, the article about Jahar is insightful, informative and a relevant piece of journalism, helping to lend background information on how a young, seemingly sweet and good-natured student could become a monster. Something that all concerned over the Boston bombings should read. But has the controversial cover helped or hindered the likelihood of the public actually reading the journalism behind Jahar's smug façade?

Being a creative in today's culture means that you can never truly please everyone. Compromises of your creativity are inevitable, and sometimes even with your conscience. Journalistic design will accompany controversial topics. With intense media coverage and a trending boycott of the issue, Rolling Stone has certainly made a statement. Was it worth it?

(Many thanks to Marla Moore for her extreme contributions to this post.)