Rolling Stone's latest cover, which features a gauzy self-portrait of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, has many up in arms.
This outrage is misplaced.
The magazine says the story is about "How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam, and Became a Monster." Written by Janet Reitman, it appears to be a thoroughly reported piece about Tsarnaev's life. The use of this picture, as opposed to a mugshot or surveillance footage, is clearly a way to dramatize the reporting contained within. We're supposed to look at this boy and wonder what happened to him, or to think about how good he apparently was at masking his criminality. It's not an endorsement of him--it's an attempt to tell a story.
By the way, that's exactly the angle the New York Times took in a front-page piece that it ran in May. There was no outrage then.
What, precisely, is Rolling Stone supposed to do? Never put anybody bad on its cover? Draw devil horns on Tsarnaev, as Erik Wemple wryly suggested today? What kind of journalism is that? What kind of respect does it show readers to shield them in that way?
There's also anger because Rolling Stone usually features celebrities on its cover. True, but the magazine also does a great deal of serious reporting. Remember the story that took down an American general?
Then, there's the charge that people who want to commit violent acts will be inspired by the notoriety afforded to Tsarnaev through covers like this. It's strange to afford such responsibility to Rolling Stone months after Tsarnaev's face and story were in every single publication around the world for weeks. Has the magazine suddenly become more powerful than the entirety of 24-hour news and the Internet put together?
There are, of course, people who will be angered or saddened by seeing Tsarnaev on the cover. But journalism is painful sometimes--mostly because the news is painful sometimes. News outlets have a responsibility to refrain from outright bigotry, but they don't have a responsibility to avoid the dark side of life.