When the venerable music magazine used a flattering selfie of the Boston Marathon bomber on its cover, it faced a ferocious backlash on social media. Thompson Rivers University journalism student Adam Williams explores whether such a reaction was warranted.

By Adam Williams

In August 2013, Rolling Stone published Janet Reitman’s feature “Jahar’s World,” which explored the life of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. 

In the aftermath of the bombings, many people had questions about who was behind them and what could have prompted them. In “Jahar’s World,” Reitman explores what may have led Dzhokhar—Jahar, as he was known to his friends—to participate in such an attack. As Rolling Stone’s cover says, it’s a story about “[h]ow a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster.”

The article was surprising not only for what it revealed about Dzhokhar’s life, but for the controversy it created—and, in particular, the cover photo Rolling Stone used. The photo, a “selfie” Dzhokhar had used on a social media account, was flattering—and many people felt it glamorized what he and his brother had allegedly done that April Day in Boston.

However, within the context of the story, the photo fit well. Reitman’s story explores the theme of a monster hiding in plain sight. That a normal-looking kid who gets along with everybody can be something completely different beneath the surface. The photo used on Rolling Stone’s cover symbolizes this theme, suggesting that what is evil might not always look evil.

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Rolling Stone was also criticized because of what many felt the cover of the magazine was supposed to represent: a sign of “making it” in the music industry. Many readers and journalists felt that by putting Dzhokhar on the cover, Rolling Stone was dubbing him a celebrity. Interestingly, it was not the first time the magazine had run a cover photo of a controversial figure. More that 40 years ago, it ran a photo of a seemingly normal Charles Manson, accompanied by a jailhouse interview.


Despite the social media backlash that Rolling Stone faced, the magazine stood by its decision to use the photo, and within the context of Reitman’s story, it makes sense. The article details Dzhokhar’s life and describes him as a popular, smart and gentle student, one who had shown no signs of violence and left many of his friends shocked by his actions. Everyone who knew him thought the boy depicted on Rolling Stone’s cover—the average, innocent-looking American teenager—was the real Dzhokhar; in reality, there was so much more happening beneath the surface. 

These issues, and others related to Rolling Stone’s Boston bomber cover, are explored in “The Ethics of Rolling Stone’s Boston Bomber Cover,” the full version of which is available for download below.

Adam Williams is a journalism student at Thompson Rivers University, in Kamloops, B.C. He is a staff reporter at the Kamloops Daily News and also works as a freelance writer. 


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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.