The rush to (news) judgment

By now, you know what’s going on.

The Aug. 3 cover of Rolling Stone features Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It’s a profile, and by my account and those of many others qualified to account, a very good profile.

The August 3 cover of Rolling Stone featuring Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

The August 3 cover of Rolling Stone featuring Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

But the profile itself is not the topic.

Placing Tsarnaev’s image on the cover has, to understate the issue, caused a stir.

In Boston, which should absolutely be the first place sought for reaction, this ran in the Globe. (At its heart, it asserts that Rolling Stone’s use of a “glamour shot” of Tsarnaev on its cover glorifies the bomber and is insensitive to the city and victims.)

A handful of stores prominent in New England have announced they are dropping the issue from their racks. CVS, Walgreens and Rite-Aid to name a few. (Note that those stores still sell a variety of alcoholic beverages that one could, in theory, purchase, guzzle, and then get behind the wheel of a car and drive onto the sidewalk, so they haven’t gone entirely noble.)

At the heart of said stir are various combinations of similar points of outrage:

• The “I can’t believe Rolling Stone gave a terrorist superstar treatment” assertion and/or leap of logic, depending on your perspective.

• “Rolling Stone just did this to call attention to itself,” most notably from a former RS intern writing about being a former RS intern.

• “Rolling Stone is for music and should leave this stuff to trusty news outlets such as [ground quakes, temple curtain rips, angry llamas burst forth, take over world].”

Obviously, I disagree. I suspect if you are reading this, you disagree simply because this is a journalism site. It’s safe to say a majority of journalists can view the cover through a prism of news judgment and are more likely than not to at least understand the decision. This is, however, more complex.

More importantly, for the rest of this piece, understand that a great many people who read Rolling Stone DO feel this way, and we’re probably not going to change anyone’s mind in a matter of minutes.

So, let’s not make this about agreeing or disagreeing with the decision to run this cover in this way. Let’s instead consider only the act of making the decision, and in the interest of brevity spawning discussion, let’s examine two perspectives of Rolling Stone.

ROLLING STONE, AS IT PRESENTS ITSELF TO ITS AUDIENCE

• The cover: On page 1, Rolling Stone battles the journalistically obvious (the first thing your potential readers see) and the culturally obvious (Rolling Stone is the most famous magazine cover in entertainment and possibly anywhere). The result is, Rolling Stone’s basic avenue for communicating its content to its readers also happens to be the most famous piece of glossy newsprint on racks about 90 percent of the time.

• The symbolism: Consequently, the cover has far more power than, say, newspaper front pages (most of the time). At newspapers, your covers often have the power to effect incremental policy change. At a minimum, the pantheon of U.S. newspapers did not cause the Rolling Stone outcry when it ran the exact same photo across the top of its cover. That’s because the cover of the New York Times largely means “this is what happened” to society. The cover of Rolling Stone is a place for the elite, for superstars, for those society idolizes.

(At this point, take a moment to consider the above in the context of the magazine’s decision making. You’re at a conference table discussing the cover of Rolling Stone. You’re at a conference table discussing who pop culture views as iconic. It’s inseparable when viewed through this prism.)

ROLLING STONE, AS IT MATTERS TO ITS AUDIENCE

• Storytelling: I used the word “matters” here. It’s key, and in this paragraph, I’m referring to the value the audience takes away from the content. With Rolling Stone, that value is storytelling. It’s a culture magazine. The magazine exists to take us inside the lives of those who are most culturally relevant. Yes, 90 percent of the time, this means entertainers. But there’s an ugly side to culture we’re reminded of several times a day, and on occasion, somebody comes along so evil as to demand society’s attention on a larger scale. Tsarnaev isn’t being written about to glorify the horrible acts he participated in. He’s being written about so that his story may be better understood. Maybe college students can draw parallels. Maybe parents can do the same. Or maybe by understanding evil, we can be better prepared to encounter it. Culture both endures and evolves, even the part of culture that binds us through #neverforget hashtags. Rolling Stone makes a tangible contribution to this through its storytelling.

• The perception of ethics: This outcry is in some manner the result of the premise that Rolling Stone crossed some kind of ethical boundary, mixing its role in pop culture with in-depth journalism. But that oversimplifies all media “ethics” into basically black-or-white. We all should do this exactly or not do this exactly. But as an institution, Rolling Stone exists to tell stories and tell them accurately. This should correctly be parsed against, say, a newsroom’s role to inform, and inform accurately. Those two aren’t the same, and as a result, standards can’t be created and applied with a broad brush.

What do I mean by that? Well as others pointed out to me, Michael Hastings’ piece on Stanley McChrystal is a result of a set of standards built around getting an incredible – and necessary – story (i.e. the crux of the reporting turned on Hastings being at least somewhat misrepresented to McChrystal’s entourage), rather than, say, covering the resulting press conference (which would depend on proper ID before asking a question, following a set of press guidelines). As a direct result, history changed. McChrystal was fired. The entire biography of David Patraeus was re-written over the span of about two years. (And maybe coincidentally, Hastings is now dead.)

The point is, sometimes journalistic standards can be complex.

Is it ethical to present Tsarnaev as a superstar? Is it ethical to tell his story through incredible reporting and then announce to your audience that you are doing so via your primary means of communicating that information (your cover)? What do you do when those two answers don’t jive? You apply your judgment based on who you are as an entity. That’s what Rolling Stone did.

We’ll stop there. We could do this all day, though, and the point would be the same: Rolling Stone exists in society’s collective psyche. That’s the version that’s sung about, the cover every musician the world over aspires to grace, the approval every artist seeks. Meanwhile, Rolling Stone exists on the pages of the magazine, and on the website, a product of vision, sweat, and toil on the part of some of the best journalists in the world, the cover reflecting a vision of some of the best visual minds in the world.

It’s virtually universal that you accept this when you become a member of the media. You work at a publication. You watch the publication striving for objectivity. You then see reader comments about bias and how your publication is a joke, and so it goes. This does not stop just because you happen to work for one of the industry’s most revered and powerful names. To the contrary, when that relationship rears its head, it’s relentless, as the last 24 hours have shown.

And all of that, every word of the above, is what Rolling Stone must consider with every cover it publishes. There are tenets of journalism competing with tenets of capitalism, and when they collide, well, you sometimes get to ingest them via a giant 72-ounce social media steak, free if eaten in one hour.

It’s a back-and-forth:

“We have an obligation to present these stories to our readers. It’s who we are.”

“Our readers might take offense to it. Are we willing to take the risk?”

What you see in this cover is the willingness to take that risk, in the name of journalism.

We saw that risk realized. The adverse reaction to and the boycotts of the Rolling Stone that exists in society’s psyche.

And then, very new and powerful information released by journalists came about in direct response to the reaction and boycotts of the Rolling Stone that exists on the pages of the magazine.

The above is a link to a new Boston Magazine piece titled The Real Face of Terror, showing haunting new photographs taken by a tactical photographer with the Massachusetts State Police that show the final standoff and capture of Tsarnaev (and holy wow, read the first comment!). The pictures are gripping, chilling and by all definitions insightful. We all now know more about what took place, for better or for worse, because of the outcry over the cover.

Painful stories are still stories. Painful information is still information. Rolling Stone reminded us of the former, and provided us avenues to the latter, and that’s the Rolling Stone that graces newsprint and bandwidth, and that is built upon journalism still capable of enlightening the world, even if enlightenment is measured in retweets.

Those are the very real and tangible consequences of Rolling Stone’s judgment. One could state with confidence that we as a collective audience are slightly better off and more informed as a result.

Without the cover, we never reach that point.

(Josh Crutchmer is news design director at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.)