The Media's Portrayal of Mass Murderers

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The Boston Marathon's joyful cheers and celebrations turned into shrieks of horror on April 15, 2013, when two bombs exploded near the finish line in fast succession. At the time, the United States was embroiled in yet another act of terrorism, this one killing three people and injuring hundreds more. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a 19-year-old apparently innocent college student who was involved in the bombings, was demonized by Rolling Stone Magazine months later. They wanted to publish his story and placed a glamorous self-portrait of the alleged terrorist on the cover of the magazine. This decision attracted condemnation and public uproar, igniting debate about the consequences of the decision. These developments beg the question: Is there a particular way the media should portray the modern day villain? Ty Burr, the author of “Rolling Stone Cover an Act of Irresponsibility” published in Boston Globe Magazine, argues that the Rolling Stone Magazine should have chosen a different picture that rightfully agrees with his status as a suspected terrorist. He also claims that the glamorous shot was simply a reckless marketing ploy by the magazine. In response, the New York Times editorial board in the article “Judging Rolling Stone by Its Cover” argues that the publication in question did no wrong by putting Tsarnaev on their cover because magazine covers do not endorse the one on it. The board also states that due to the buzz created by the media on the subject, the magazine would surely sell a lot of copies. These two articles subtly bring up the delicate issue of depicting mass killers in the media especially when their looks don’t fit the profile. The media should be careful about how they portray mass killers and other perpetrators of crime. Failure to do this could result in unhealthy fascinations with these people among the public and further cement their celebrity status.

In “Rolling Stone cover an act of irresponsibility”, Ty Burr argues that the magazine should have used a different picture that accurately depicts the real Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and how he saw himself. He explains that images are powerful and they appeal to the audience more than words. The message the magazine was trying to pass across, even though it was relevant to the issue at hand, could easily be overshadowed by the cover photo. The author believes that Tsarnaev’s horrific deeds would pale in comparison to his good looks on the cover of a popular culture magazine leading to the creation of unrealistic obsessions with his persona.

Burr claims that Rolling Stone Magazine had plenty of options when it came to photos that could accurately illustrate to the audience who Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was. He writes, “There’s the black-and-white shot of Tsarnaev before a patterned wall-hanging: a bleary-eyed malcontent” (Burr). The author’s point is that using such a photo would have helped to eliminate the guy-next-door persona that the magazine cover tried to propagate. To see him in this light would convince the easily manipulated demographic that this young man had a rebellious nature from the beginning and, therefore, what he did should not come as a surprise. It would help the audience to see him as the murderer he was. The author also claims that using the selfie photo contributes to watering down the gravity of Tsarnaev’s actions. He adds, “By putting this Tsarnaev on the cover, Rolling Stone at best plays with and at worst buys into the accused’s own manufactured image, casual but potent, speaking in a language we all understand” (Burr). In making this comment, Burr argues that the selfie made the accused seem like a normal human being. He takes a selfie just like we do and wants to look his best. This can cause people to start sympathizing and empathizing with him disregarding that his actions had claimed lives and maimed others.

In the second article, “Judging Rolling Stone by Its Cover”, the editorial team at the New York Times asserts that the Rolling Stone Magazine did nothing wrong by featuring Tsarnaev on the cover. The team goes on to refute the claim that by placing this young man on the cover, the magazine helped to propel him to rock-star status. They condemn the backlash this magazine received and go further to state that other publications used the same image including their newspaper. The mere fact that a criminal appears on the front cover of a magazine doesn’t mean that it approves of their actions. The editorial board goes on to give more examples of mass murderers in history that appeared on the front covers of magazines just to show that it wasn’t anything foreign. They conclude by saying the spotlight the magazine received as a result of this image would only work to increase its sales.

The editorial board believes that featuring a murderer on the front cover of a magazine is not a big deal because it doesn’t influence how people see this person at the end of the day. In the board’s view, “Consumers have every right to avoid buying a magazine that offends them, like Guns & Ammo or Rolling Stone” (The Editorial Board). The board’s point is that it is possible for the public to choose what they want to feed their minds. They can as well stay away from this magazine to maintain the perspective they already have of this young terrorist. If staring at Tsarnaev’s good looks would cause them to start sympathizing with him, they have the choice to look away every time they encounter the magazine. The editorial board also argues, “As any seasoned reader should know, magazine covers are not endorsements.” The board says, just because Tsarnaev appeared on the cover of the magazine doesn’t mean that Rolling Stone supports him or is trying to help him reach celebrity status by getting him a cult following. What the magazine wanted to do is get some valuable information out.

After reading and analyzing these two articles, one important issue emerges: the decision makers should be careful when portraying mass killers in the media. With the constant attention they get, people can easily be swayed to support them even when they are wrong. In Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s case, Burr believes that “by placing his selfie within the context of a magazine cover, a format regularly used to sell rock stars, movie icons, and models, the editors have collaborated with Tsarnaev in the creation of his own celebrity” (Burr). In my opinion, the magazine feature could get him sympathizers, fans, and followers and soon after, people who want to emulate him. Over time, this could escalate to a security threat to the country. All this is avoidable if the media rightfully portrays the criminal as he is and not the toned down version.

In trying to belittle the argument, the New York Times editorial board points out that, “Time magazine, for example, had quite a few covers featuring Adolf Hitler during the war years. Less than a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Time featured a less-than-demonic photo of Osama bin Laden” (The Editorial Board). They try to pass across the point that this has been done before with no serious consequences. I disagree with their position on this matter. While looking at the bigger picture, it is evident to see that the spotlight did more harm than good, albeit in small proportions. Today, we face the problem of neo-Nazis who continue to profess their love for Hitler and his ideologies long after he died. How did this happen? This could have been fueled by the constant spotlight in the media with publications eager to tell his story and spread his propaganda. It could also be a possibility that the larger than life personality of Osama bin Laden portrayed in the media inspired Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Through his beliefs and those of others, the young man was radicalized and believed that starting a war against non-Muslims was the best way forward.

Burr mentions that “our popular culture doesn’t quite know what to do with enigma.” The mass murderers are enigmas to us, and we tend to devote time in trying to find out more about them. The appearance on a magazine cover is just another motivation to keep digging. The editorial board subtly recognizes this fact and puts up a disclaimer that says, “Magazine covers are not endorsements.” What the board fails to recognize is that giving a criminal such a platform only works to elevate his profile, approval or not, thus helping “in the creation of his own celebrity” (Burr).

The proper depiction of mass killers in today’s media, both print and visual, is necessary because of the blurred lines between mere curiosity in trying to figure them out and an all-out dangerous fascination. The latter gives rise to people who are sympathizers and defenders of the criminals and waters down the consequences of their actions. More should be done to focus on the real issues such as their victims or how to prevent the common occurrence of mass killings instead of handing these perpetrators the celebrity status on a silver platter.

Works Cited

Burr, Ty. “Rolling Stone Cover an Act of Irresponsibility”. Boston Globe Magazine, 18 July 2013,

The Editorial Board. “Judging Rolling Stone by Its Cover”. New York Times, 18 July 2013,

August 09, 2021

Life Sociology


Emotions News media

Subject area:

Honor Murder Media

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