Adweek magazine released its 2013 Hot List this past week, and editors chose the controversial Rolling Stone cover with the “Boston bomber” Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as their hottest cover of the year. The lash back Rolling Stone received from this cover was merely one example of the growing discordance between the media and the public this past year. According to the 2013 AEI Political Report, today only 40% of those polled say they have a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the mass media when it comes to reporting the news “fully, accurately, and fairly.” This is opposed to 70% in the early 1970s (2). It seems that the largest controversies came in response to coverage of the seemingly ubiquitous tragedies of late, such as the Boston bombings. As a journalism major, it concerns me to see society losing faith in my chosen profession while I hear ethics and public duty brought up in my classes almost daily. In The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel discuss their fundamental points of journalism, one of which is “its practitioners have an obligation to exercise their personal conscience (6).” In this post, I will discuss the media’s coverage of tragedy within the past year, and look at how the public, and the media itself, apply Kovach and Rosenstiel’s standards to the news coverage.
The August 2013 cover of Rolling Stone magazine featuring Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was met with a flurry of negative comments on the Internet. Many considered the picture used to give Tsarnaev a rockstar image, with disheveled hair and in the same age group and look as many of their cover celebrities. On person wrote on the magazine’s Facebook page,
“I think it’s wrong to make celebrities out of these people. Why give the guy the cover of Rolling Stone? TIME gave Charles Manson the cover and all the magazines carried pictures of the Columbine shooters on the covers, too. Don’t make martyrs out of these people.”
With these accusations of glamorizing terrorism, even some chains like CVS and Walgreens refused to sell the issue in their stores (1). Chapter 10 in the book discusses the difficulty and necessity of self-policing in journalism due to the fuzzy lines of integrity. The chapter reads, “there is the added tension [for a journalist] between the public service role of the journalist – the aspect of the work that justifies its intrusiveness – and the business function that finances the work,” as Kovach and Rosenstiel explain many times that sensationalism and celebrity do sell (6). The Tsarnaev issue’s sales doubled that of the years average for the magazine. It’s also important to note that Adweek had two different mechanisms of assessing their “hot list,” editor’s choice and reader’s choice. While reader’s chose the People cover of the Royal Baby, the editors chose the Rolling Stone cover explaining it proved “again that while sex sells, controversy does, too (3). ”
Broadcast news’ coverage of the Sandy Hook shootings received similar criticism. What turned out to be a fake tweet by actor Morgan Freeman went viral during the media frenzy that was the 24-hour cover of the shootings, part of which involved attempting to find the identity of the murderer. His tweet, which condemned the “sensationalist media” for covering these mass murders in a way that made “disturbed people” want to kill themselves in a “memorable way” sparked similar responses across Twitter, Facebook, and popular blogs. The post the tweet originated from also mentions the way the media covered the “Batman theater shooter and the Oregon mall shooters” in making his argument that a way to stop these tragedies is by “turning off the news (4).” This sentiment spread like wildfire, with other popular figures such as Roger Ebert condemning the media.
The critics see a twisted version of Kovach and Rosenstiel’s argument where “intrusiveness” is justified not by the duties of a “public servant,” but rather by the needs of the “business.” Although Rolling Stone and various broadcasting stations issued their own explanations to their choices, a New Yorker argument in response to the Tsarnaev cover got perhaps the most attention. The article, which explained the importance of the Rolling Stone coverage, made its point by maintaining the discourse of journalistic integrity and responsibility, but illuminating a different side.
“Yet the vitriol and closed-mindedness of the Web response to the Rolling Stone cover, before anyone had the chance to read the article itself, is an example of the ugly public outcomes of terrorism: hostility toward free expression, and to the collection and examination of factual evidence; and a kind of culture-wide self-censorship encouraged by tragedy, in which certain responses are deemed correct and anything else is dismissed as tasteless or out of bounds. The victims of the Boston Marathon bombing deserve our attention, and will continue to teach us about perseverance and the best parts of our common nature. But the dark stories of the bombing need to be told, too. And we need to hear them (5).”
Kovach and Rosenstiel end their chapter on a journalist’s responsibility to conscience by explaining that it is the role of the citizen to hold the media up to certain standards. Technology has allowed this to be truer than ever before, and citizens are largely in line with the book’s train of thought as they implore the media to put their conscience before their paychecks. However, as The New Yorker points out, sometimes conscience is about making choices about professional responsibility, regardless of its popularity.
Kovach, Bill, and Tom Rosenstiel. The Elements of Journalism. London: Atlantic, 2003. Print. (6)