Home > Journalism > Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover

Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover


After Rolling Stone put Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover, the Boston Strong community has suffered from an alarming lack of fainting couches. But I’m here to calm everyone down enough to unclutch their pearls and to explain a lesson we all should have learned in elementary school.

If you can uncover your eyes for a moment, let’s take a quick look at the infamous cover.


Once you get your CO2 levels regulated by breathing in and out of your paper bag, check out the part of the headline I’ve highlighted. Instead of “glamorizing” the subject of their article, they’ve defined him as “a monster.”

“Glamorize” is also a curious word choice for another reason. This image wasn’t staged; it’s a personal photo of Tsarnaev. It’s one the New York Times used on its front page. In other words, it’s an accurate portrayal of the alleged terrorist we’re interested in learning about.

There is some legitimacy in the criticism that Rolling Stone probably chose this picture to be deliberately provocative to sell more magazines. But unless you’re fundamentally opposed to any capitalist promotion in journalism your selective outrage carries little authority. As long as the image isn’t deceptive, selecting a picture that illustrates the nature of the story isn’t unethical.

So unless you deny the importance of studying the type of person willing to murder innocent civilians, you shouldn’t object to an accurate portrayal. And make no mistake, the article is about him and his transformation into a radical islamist bomber. So all those calls for putting a photo of police officer or a victim miss the point. The article is not about those subjects.

Mandating we only use photos of victims (even when not talking specifically about them) or only using scary images of criminals is a dangerous form a political correctness that prevents us from rationally understanding the threat. Using a “glamorous” photo isn’t unjustified once you recognize that seemingly normal people can become terrorists too. I wonder if the widespread knee-jerk reaction isn’t a subconscious defense mechanism against that frightening reality. When attractive people who look like us can be taken in and radicalized by such an unattractive ideology it scares us. Perception of the true face of the danger is essential to protecting us from the source of that fear.

We all should remember that looking at a cover-photo is only the beginning of how we consume the news. You are expected to judge the photograph, but it’s also understood you will read the content. If we censor ourselves from objectionable images and ignore the context, we’re ostriches blinding ourselves to threats. Everyone calling for a boycott or encouraging stores to not carry what you personally deem offensive forces others to submit to your information blackout. Just because it’s not illegal censorship does not make it benign censorship.

Just remember, don’t judge a book or a magazine by its cover.

(image: fainting couch)

Categories: Journalism
  1. Dee- your sister
    July 19, 2013 at 10:54 am

    I think the photo they selected is tasteless and gimmicky with no regard for the people involved and their feelings in seeing this friendly image of him. I have no problem with the story itself and think it is important to examine just why these things happen. The image of him on the cover is not frightening to me. It’s no new concept to me that evil can exist under the guise of beauty. I am just thinking how the families involved will feel about this, since it is still so fresh to everyone. It’s easy to dismiss if you have no attachment to the tragedy, but for those who do, this is upsetting. They do portray him like a rock star on the cover, and that message of their original intent can easily be misconstrued. Furthering the fame of a terrorist in this nature can be dangerous, as well, and send the wrong message.

    That said, they are free to print whatever yet wish. We are free not to buy it. I think the story is important to recognize. I do wonder, though, if they have ulterior motives for choosing such a picture that serves their own benefit rather than actually caring about the situation, the survivors, the victims, the causes…

  2. Dee- your sister
    July 19, 2013 at 11:27 am

    I also feel at this point the whole boycotting thing is taking it a bit too far where they are saying boycott stores, sponsors, etc. That is getting ridiculous, and it is infringing on the rights to free press. I don’t support taking away anyone’s rights. It’s one thing not to buy the issue and be angry at any insensitivity, but another to put people out of jobs and take away their free speech.

    • July 20, 2013 at 10:17 am

      I think Rolling Stone probably wanted to emphasize the contrast of what we’re used to seeing on their covers with what Tsarnaev “really” is. That is a legitimate journalistic/artistic decision. It seems unlikely that the editors would deliberately try to “glorify” him while publishing a story about how he’s a “monster.”

      Of course some victims may take it the wrong way if they ignore all the context, but I don’t want journalists self-censoring because some people might react the wrong way if they overlook even the headline that accompanies the cover-photo.

      Trying to tailor our journalistic and artistic decisions to not motivate crazy people or religious radicals seems quixotic and perverse.

      I’m glad you’re not supporting a boycott. If you don’t want to buy the magazine yourself that’s fine, but preventing others from reading what they want to read sets a terrible precedent. If the boycott turned out to be as successful as some critics hope, we’d have less investigative journalism generally and less people able to read Matt Taibbi specifically. And that is a cause I cannot support.

  3. July 20, 2013 at 10:49 am

    Looking at a cover-photo would be only the beginning of how we consume the news in a perfect world.

    In the world we live in, however, people obtain their 411 via headlines and, above all, pictures, the latter of which are known to speak more than a thousand words.

    So if you put a terrorist on the cover of a magazine that is known for its rock star covers, the message you’re sending, intentionally or otherwise, is that the person shown is a rock star, irrespective of what is says in the small print that only a fraction of those looking at the cover will ever read.

    It would be nice if most human brains operated on reason and logic, but, alas, they generally work by association.

  4. Publius
    July 20, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    Osama Bin Laden, a terrorist of greater magnitude than Tsarnaev, has been featured in photos and videos all over popular media. Yet no one is calling for the removal of his image.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: