When Good Pictures Happen to Bad People: Why We Hate That We Like The Rolling Stone Cover

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His dark eyes stare straight at the lens, his hair tousled so it falls just-so to one side, just as any teen idol or rock star would want to debut on a national magazine cover. He’s called a “monster,” but the Rolling Stone cover image of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev shows anything but such a beast. And that’s why people are so uncomfortable with it.

The cover story, “The Bomber” touts the feature as: “How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam, and became a monster.” The piece, published online on Tuesday and written by Rolling Stone contributing editor Janet Reitman, is a heavily reported look at how Tsarnaev became an infamous criminal, accused of planting explosives that killed three and injured hundreds during the 2013 Boston Marathon.

But many couldn’t make it past the cover — or vowed not to, when the issue becomes available on Friday, fueling a #BoycottRollingStone on Twitter. Two New England stores are refusing to sell the edition, and many decided not to read the magazine again. While some argue that no criminal should be glorified on a magazine cover in any form, many just can’t stomach the glamorized image of Tsarnaev, in which he resembles a “rock star.” And there’s a reason why that makes us uncomfortable.

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For one, there is something called “the beauty effect,” in which we intuitively associate what is beautiful with what is good. Beauty factors heavily into how individuals assess the character of another person. Physical attractiveness, in fact, is one of the greatest predictors of who we end up liking, and beautiful people are consistently rated higher in intelligence, social desirability, happiness and success.

While seeing an attractive picture of a villainous person isn’t likely to change our opinion of that individual’s egregious acts, as the uproar over the image indicates, it could lead us to feel some emotions that we may not think are appropriate. That includes sadness, and perhaps even a douse of empathy over why an attractive person would commit a terrible crime, says Ellen Berscheid, a social psychologist at the University of Minnesota who studies interpersonal relationships.

“It is extremely difficult to separate a person’s appearance from the person’s actions, which is why it is so hard to ‘love the sinner and hate the behavior,’ says Berscheid. “Numerous studies have demonstrated that a person’s physical attractiveness level is discerned and cognitively processed within a fraction of a fraction of an instant, even when the perceiver cannot report exactly what has been perceived.”

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Attraction to a bad person–even for just an instant–can cause a storm of conflicting emotions. “When there is behavioral or reputational evidence about a person that is incongruent with the person’s appearance, at least some cognitive dissonance can be expected. Such dissonance is uncomfortable and if it is uncomfortable enough it will tend to be resolved,” says Berscheid. That usually involves people re-evaluating a person’s attractiveness downward to more accurately reflect their negative behavior, or invoking excuses or mitigating circumstances to explain the individual’s actions — something akin to empathy.

That’s certainly the case here — Tsarnaev has attracted a fan base owing largely to his looks. Prior to the release of the Rolling Stone image, Slate reporter Amanda Marcotte considered why Tsarnaev has so many female supporters, who have organized themselves under ‘Free Jahar’ and emerged in force during his arraignment. “[T]hey sure do spend a lot of time sharing pictures of him on Tumblr, squealing over any behavior of his that can be construed as “cute,” and clucking maternally over his well being,” she wrote. “On Wednesday, outrage flared up in “Free Jahar” circles because of the unflattering portrayal of him in the court illustrations.”

Such allegiance is one way of resolving the dissonance people intuitively sense between an attractive criminal and his heinous acts. But for others, the conflict isn’t so easy to address, because most people appreciate the power it can have in swaying sentiment. Studies show that people tend to change their opinions when they start to identify with another person — defense attorneys rely on it routinely to portray their clients as human — as a father, mother or child of someone to whom they are important. It’s also well known in kidnapping situations; Stockholm syndrome is a coping mechanism that allows captives to relate to their captors in order to survive extended periods of forced captivity.

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Would a mug shot of Tsarnaev have been a better option — or would that have also been considered biased, for other reasons? While editors at Rolling Stone did not respond to a request from TIME for comment on the cover, the magazine posted a statement defending the story, if not the image, with the online version of the feature:

Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens.

However people resolve the dissonance of seeing Tsarnaev looking comfortable, even attractive, on the cover of a magazine with the knowledge of what he is accused of doing, maybe the most important lesson the article, and the image, might teach us is this: that monsters might indeed look like rock stars.


We sometimes forget that even "bombers" play a role in the evolution of humanity. Through his actions we become aware of our own. Are we simply going to judge him as a bad person and miss the opportunity that he is part of humanity? As the desire for evolution of the human condition rises, dire deeds fan the flames.


 Aha!!! I was right!!!! See my old copy&paste below


Republicans (conservatives in general) have a VERY simplistic mind. Everything is black and white to them. Their favorite movies are from Disney (good guy, bad guy) and their hero is John Wayne. They focus on looks and appearances: the polite and diplomatic act of bowing is insulting to them.

Liberals have a much more complex mind. They focus in substance and intellect. Ugly broads like Janet Reno, Napolitano or Golda Meier would NEVER make it in the Republicans Party. Dumb bimbos (Palin, Bachmann, O'Donnell) would never make it in the Democratic Party.

Just compare the women in Faux vs. CNN and -specially- MSNBC.

In the Conservative mind:

A good looking person  ==> a good person
A bad looking person   ==> a bad person.

That is why conservatives tend to be racists.





Only in your Anti-white opinion are they racist. You're only saying that because they're white. Stop White Genocide. Anti-racist is a codeword for Anti-white.

rebsmi123 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Wow! An article on this subject that I can finally agree with.  I am so tired of people slamming Rolling Stone because they cant get past the fact this boy is pretty to actually get to the facts.  I can get past his looks and understand that evil doesnt always have an ugly face.

Stwy like.author.displayName 1 Like

@rebsmi123 The problem is not that they used an attractive photo, the problem is that they enhanced the photo to make it resemble an iconic Jim Morrison shot.  They softened and warmed the colors and took out the shadows and that is sick.


@Stwy @rebsmi123 So? If you can't get passed the looks of someone to see who they really are and what the story really is, that is your limitation and maybe you're the one that is sick. 


"With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion."


i had NO IDEA Rolling Stone magazine was the lynchpin of American society...explains a lot


You should not have to defend this type of journalism, but unfortunately the Boston-Strong mob's witch hunt has made it a requirement. 


Please don't say "We" in your title. You are presuming way too much.  The sight of that child murdering poseur's face turns my stomach. Rolling Stone has reached a pathetic low, and I really used to like that magazine.  Their excuse for this ploy is something along the lines of "we need to understand how this was a regular kid and how he could have turned out this way". Uh look no further - it's just this kind of shallow, callous, self-promotion stunt Rolling Stone is using here that cheapens our society and breeds the kind of narcissist that Tsarnaev is.  


Key word:  SUSPECT.

As far as I know he could have been framed.  Everything I have ready points to him having been set up.  Don't pretend that our gov't doesn't do that kind of crap.  If all the news outlets tell you something you all believe it.  End of story.


Well, interesting what the criticizing public seems to enrage. It's the portrait of young man with a face slightly too attractive for comfort but only after recalling his deed. Anyone oblivious to his crime would only see a handsome young mans face, a facade without a clue of what's going on behind these eyes. Once recognized a quite disturbing discovery.

amrocz like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I like the cover. It proves that not all monsters look scary which makes them more threatening.  We need to keep ourselves in check with reality and in this case, the reality is a good looking, smart young man with a bright future had an underlying influence that was ignored or dismissed based on the outer appearance of his face and life.

Yago32 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Have you read what the oldest Newspaper on the Nation have to say about‪ ‎Rolling Stone‬ Cover and Article? ....

The Boston Globe July 18.2013
Rolling Stone controversy: Not every image is a celebration:

ADOLF HITLER, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Charles Manson are among the killers whose faces have appeared on the covers of major English-language magazines, and no one should conclude that a publication’s decision to examine the backgrounds, views, or deeds of these individuals is in any way a celebration of them. Rolling Stone magazine’s decision to publish a long story about Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in its upcoming issue, and to feature an image of him on the cover, should be interpreted primarily in this context. The story, which was posted online Wednesday, represents a major commitment of time and energy, and it appears to provide some new details about Tsarnaev’s background. So it’s worthy of prominent play in the magazine and of broader public attention.

Rolling Stone grew out of a 1960s-era alternative news movement that combined intense coverage of music and the arts with hard-hitting coverage of current events. Most recently, the magazine’s scorching 2010 profile of General Stanley McChrystal led to the Afghanistan commander’s downfall. Yet because the reading public has long known Rolling Stone primarily for its music and entertainment coverage, many Bostonians are understandably concerned that the magazine is giving the bombing suspect a celebrity treatment he doesn’t deserve.


Times, you are Glorifying THIS MONSTER for publishing his Picture!!!!! (as you did with Hitler, Stalin and Mao)


@Yago32 It's reality and we have to accept each of the events, however horrible they are/were, in order to be more aware of what we are dealing with.

starshipcity like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

This is why I really dislike this cover. I really couldn't give two craps if they used a "bad picture" - it still is sensationalizing gun killers and giving future bombers/killers the desire for attention they seek.

JillFaulderMcOwen like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I read the article in full for free on their website. It amounted to tons of speculation and character witnesses from people he knew in high school. Perhaps interesting for someone studying to be a therapist. Otherwise, this man made adult decision to induce terror on entire city of Boston and now will face the appropriate adult consequences. The picture is not even close to issue for me. There is an excuse for everyone these days it seems... and now RS headlines this terrorist's family "failed him"?! That is what is unbelievable.


Wow. Now TIME takes the cake for the most pathetic news outlet.  Sorry Rolling Stone, you were on top for a day.  But the Stupidity of TIME now trumps yours.

ScallywagNYC like.author.displayName 1 Like

So let's cut to the chase. What's the real role of media? Is it to offend, provoke, entertain, inform, titillate, cater to preferred tastes or to challenge those tastes, raise questions or to stay safely within the confines of what is palatable and non controversial? After all what is the media really selling to society?

Then again maybe the idea of a 'white boy' gone disturbed is not fitting too well with the hunchback tyrant and our regurgitated script of what good and evil in America looks like.