Rolling Stone magazine took an image that most of us knew well from coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and slapped it on its cover, and is now facing condemnation on social channels and boycotts by, so far, Tedeschi Food Shops and CVS/pharmacy, both headquartered in New England.
The cover image of one of the April 15 bombers, Dzhokar Tsarnaev, was taken by Tsarnaev himself and used for his Twitter profile, and was shared by the media in the aftermath of the attack. It was the visual totem that led one to ask, "How could a gentle-looking, young stoner commit such a cold-hearted, murderous crime?"
Visually, Tsarnaev fits the profile of Rolling Stone's target audience, and while it is jarring to see the image in this context, the cover begs the same question: "How could a gentle-looking, young stoner commit such a cold-hearted, murderous crime?"
It's a question we've all been asking since Tsarnaev was captured, lying bloodied in a boat in a Watertown, Mass., backyard.
Rolling Stone editors had to know that the cover would be controversial. They had to know that framing Tsarnaev with the famous Rolling Stone logo as they did would lead to claims that they were glamorizing a mass murderer. But that dissonance would, hopefully, have the desired effect: raising hope that the article inside would indeed answer that question we've all been asking ourselves.
They could not have expected the fevered outrage, and that's where they erred. Publicity for a struggling medium like print magazines is normally a good thing, but fury and boycotts are not good for business. In response, Rolling Stone posted the following comment on its Facebook page and at the top of the online version of the article itself:
Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week 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. 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. –THE EDITORS
Significantly, in the image slider on Rolling Stone's home page, the image being used is one of Tsarnaev captured by a security camera, not the soft-toned Twitter profile shot.
Rolling Stone might be technically old media, but the days of letters to the editor published weeks after the fact are long over. In retrospect, running this cover by a crisis management expert ahead of time would have at least prepared the magazine for the intensely negative response. A crisis expert might have said, "You want to run this cover? Better make sure publisher Jann Wenner is in Boston and available to speak about it the day the magazine hits the streets. And now, let's talk about our social media strategy."