Rolling Stone made a massive error last week when it released the image of its cover featuring accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But to be clear, the error was not putting Tsarnaev on the cover, in a photo the young man (he turned 20 on Monday) took of himself in quieter days, in the style of so many online selfies.
The error was depriving that cover of its proper context. Yes, the image was released as part of a blog post with a selection of highlights from the upcoming story. But that wasn’t nearly enough information on which to judge the work of RS, which has a long and proud tradition of alternative journalism — featuring both entertainers and newsmakers, fan-like coverage and investigative reporting.
For those who criticize the selection of the image and say they “expected” something else of RS, I suggest that the view RS has of itself is probably different than the one harbored by occasional readers. This sort of thing happens at the Portland Phoenix, too. From time to time, people profess themselves surprised to learn that we cover important news issues, or say they’re disappointed by a viewpoint they don’t expect to see presented in our pages.
Surprising readers, providing new perspectives and provoking them to think about important topics in different ways, is what alternative journalism does, and has always done. (And those topics are intentionally wide-ranging: across music, art, film, food, and, yes, the news of the day.)
But another hallmark of alternative journalism is its context. We tell you not only what is happening, but also why you care. (At times we acknowledge you probably don’t care, and then try to persuade you otherwise.)
And that’s what was missing from the initial reveal. The RS article (which many protesters did not read before taking up arms) paints a more complete portrait of Tsarnaev than we’ve seen before, and includes the very details of his 21st-century teen life that most befuddle those who knew him best. He was, as the full story puts forth, seen and experienced by friends and coaches as a normal kid, feeling idealistic, looking dissipated, taking selfies that look like pop-culture images of rock stars.
To illustrate that with one of those images, showing if nothing else how Tsarnaev viewed himself, is a brilliant move that — when seen in its proper context — startles us into confronting our own view of the younger half of the duo who allegedly bombed the Boston Marathon finish line, killing three and injuring scores of others, some who are permanently maimed. In our minds, we see a monster; he — and those of us who look at the cover — saw a regular guy. And that’s not just the face he presented to himself — it’s the face those around him saw, as the RS story extensively documents.
It’s a truly great way to illustrate the story’s overall point: Tsarnaev really was the terrorist next door. The problem is that in attempting to promote its upcoming strong scoop, RS forgot to provide the proper context, and suffered a massive and public backlash as a result of that failing. And yes, the magazine did respond swiftly, releasing the full story online as the frenzy grew. But by then they were by definition behind the curve and playing defense.