Why a Picture on Rolling Stone’s Cover Sparks Outrage

The magazine’s latest edition features the Boston Marathon bombing suspect.

This image of accused Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appeared on the cover of the August issue of Rolling Stone magazine.


Rolling Stone's cover image, of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnev, has already appeared widely in print—but is now creating a firestorm online, where many have accused the hallowed publication of glamorizing a suspected mass murderer.

The photo in question, a self-portrait taken directly from Tsarnev's Twitter profile, features the 19-year-old suspect looking straight at the camera. It was not lit or manipulated in any way by Rolling Stone.

So why the controversy? It's hard to say. Magazine covers are there to sell magazines. And the images editors choose are not always ones that readers necessarily agree with, says Keith Jenkins, the director of digital photography at National Geographic, who agreed to answer a few more questions about the Rolling Stone cover.

Thousands of people took to social media sites like Twitter and Rolling Stone's Facebook page to voice their opinions about the Rolling Stone cover. Why do you think the image of Dzhokhar Tsarnev incited such a firestorm on social media?

There is a pretty raw and open wound that still exists around what happened in Boston and you have to remember the fact that it was the most significant terror attack on U.S. soil since September 11. So it's understandable that emotions around this cover are pretty raw, because anything that calls attention to this case is going to be a lightning rod for commentary. Social media is simply where that takes place.

But magazine covers feature suspects all of the time and this kind of response never erupts. What's different about Rolling Stone's cover?

Even in an era of waning magazine circulation, Rolling Stone has an iconic status in our society. And we can clearly see that it retains its place, based on the response to this cover, as both a celebrity maker and celebrity validator. Celebrities can take the shape from musicians to mass murderers. And one can argue that Rolling Stone actually did what they would normally do given their editorial mission—which is to put that story front and center in front of their readers.

Rolling Stone did feature Charles Manson on the cover in 1970, to tease an interview they conducted with him in prison. But that was before social media existed.

Do we know how many letters to the editor went to Rolling Stone after Charles Manson was on the cover? Today's social media landscape allows us to see a response to a cover pretty quickly.

What do you think about the actual image? People are comparing it to Jim Morrison's cover and suggesting that Rolling Stone glamorized the image.

To their credit, they didn't doctor the photo. It's presented as it was presented in dozens—if not hundreds—of publications when it was first released. If there's anything to learn from this, the underlying lesson is that this is going to continue to happen. The role of media is to cover the stories that may be the most controversial and that's something that photography does as well. It sometimes shows us images that we don't want to see but are nonetheless important to telling the full story.

How has social media changed the way photography editors look for images for crime stories?

Ten years ago, we were looking for people's high school yearbook photos because we knew those were the photos that were most likely to exist. Now, in a lot of cases, we don't have to do that because those photos exist on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram.