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The Rolling Stone Cover: A Journalist's Thoughts on Tone, Appearances and Apologies

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The sympathetic photograph and cover language on the front of the new issue of Rolling Stone have provoked outrage from critics who say the magazine depicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston bombing suspect, as if he were a rock star -- and a victim.

Underneath the portrait of Tsarnaev, the cover reads, "The Bomber: How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster."

Doug Stanglin at USA Today reports that Walgreens, CVS, and other stores in Massachusetts are refusing to sell the magazine. The Boston Globe adds that Boston's Mayor Thomas M. Menino said in a letter to Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone's publisher, that the cover "rewards a terrorist with celebrity treatment. It is ill-conceived, at best, and re-affirms a terrible message that destruction gains fame for killers and their 'causes.’” The comments on Rolling Stone's Facebook page are overwhelmingly negative, with threats to cancel subscriptions and to delete links and online bookmarks. Some commenters listed the names of the Boston bombing victims.

The magazine goes on sale tomorrow, but Rolling Stone has published the story online, under the headline, "Jahar's World." And here we find another indication of the magazine's sympathetic approach to Tsarnaev. Journalists refer to people by their full names the first time, and last names thereafter. Rolling Stone refers to Tsarnaev throughout by his nickname, "Jahar." Using a first name -- or, more strikingly, a nickname -- usually sends the message that this is a sympathetic profile. The picture, the cover language, and the familiar stance in the story all suggest the same thing: It wasn't his fault.

In response to the criticism, Rolling Stone posted the following on Facebook:

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

This is dishonest. Note that it does not respond to the criticism at all, which almost exclusively concerns the cover. Nobody is saying that the story falls outside the traditions of journalism, or that we shouldn't want to know "how a tragedy like this happens." Here's a rule that editors should keep in mind: Either apologize, or stand firm. Don't dissemble. My reading of this is that the editors don't think they should apologize; the statement was intended to mute the criticism. And it didn't work.

Another indication that at least one editor has not yet grappled with the criticism was this tweet, posted yesterday by Christian Hoard, a Rolling Stone senior editor: "I guess we should have drawn a d*** on Dzhokar's face or something?"

Today, Hoard tweeted, "Yesterday I made a sarcastic remark here in response to the RS cover controversy. I stand by our cover, but not my tweet - it was inappropriate and disrespectful. I'm sorry." Hoard, for one, is apparently now making a more serious effort to consider the criticism.

I share the view that this cover was misguided and perhaps even dangerous. It's difficult to know what effect the cover and the sympathetic treatment of Tsarnaev might have on another potential terrorist or criminal quietly stockpiling weapons or explosives in an apartment or garage. But we should worry about that.

Not every journalist agrees with the critics. Erik Wemple at The Washington Post writes, "Presumably the protesters would have a tabloid treatment in which Rolling Stone would place horns on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev." Like Hoard, Wemple thinks, for some reason, that the critics would have been happy if the portrait had been defaced. Wemple continues: "Showing this alleged bomber in his full humanity makes him appear even more menacing." Take another look at the cover; Bob Dylan looks more menacing.

Slate calls the cover "brilliant." Mark Joseph Stern writes that the "dreamy photo" of Tsarnaev is "smart, unnerving journalism. By depicting a terrorist as sweet and handsome rather than ugly and terrifying, Rolling Stone has subverted our expectations and hinted at a larger truth." Stern's larger truth is that Tsarnaev looks not like a monster, but like "someone we might know." That may be true, but it's not terribly subtle. Do we all expect terrorists to look like some cartoonish version of evil? I don't think so. He goes on to praise Rolling Stone's journalism, which is, again, beside the point of the criticism.

John Wolfson, the editor of Boston magazine, manages a weaker defense of Rolling Stone. He told media blogger Jim Romenesko that Rolling Stone was trying to "spotlight just how unlikely it would have seemed on April 14 that his kid could have done something like this." Unlike Stern, however, Wolfson agrees with the critics that Rolling Stone missed its mark. "Could the execution have been better? I think so. The cover language describes Tsarnaev himself as a victim, and from my perspective at least, that was insensitive to the people who were killed and wounded in the bombings." Still, he thinks the "outrage has been to some degree out of proportion to the magazine's offenses."

After I worked my way through the reporting on the cover, I read Janet Reitman's story. It's a long recreation of Tsarnaev's life before the bombing, based largely on interviews with his friends and teachers. It does not tell us much more than we already knew about what might have been going on in his head in the days leading up to the Boston marathon. I did not find a larger truth here. I don't expect a successful terrorist to look like a terrorist; those that do are presumably rounded up before they commit their crimes. The only "larger truth" I found here was that editors make mistakes. And they only compound their problems if they fail to admit that.

This post originally appeared at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.