Rolling Stone, Boston Marathon & the Renewal of Ethics in the Media

By: Wolfgang Vondey
Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

The latest issue of the Rolling Stone Magazine has caused a (arguably calculated) uproar when one of the suspects of the Boston Marathon bombings was placed on the cover. A similar outcry occurred when the magazine placed mass murderer Charles Manson on the cover 43 years ago (Source: USA Today July 17, 2013). The choice to place the suspect rather than the victims on the cover, the mere decision to feature the alleged mass murderer, has led to calls to boycott the magazine on Twitter and Facebook. The decision shows poor taste, at best, or perhaps more to the point, a complete failure of the editors to understand the role of media in today’s world by choosing to attribute celebrity status to the suspect. A worst, it shows a carelessness that capitulates morals for the sake of financial gain. My intention here is not to lend an uncritical support of the naysayers but to question the broader reality that underlies the debate: the lack of ethics in a mass media world.

This is the first post on Renewal Dynamics without an image or illustration. What choice do I have? If I illustrate the post with a picture of the cover I become complicit to the same decision made by the editors of the magazine. I could, of course, use any number of other examples where mass media proliferate the star status of those engaged in unethical behavior. And in turn, we would learn that the media only do what the public actually buys. The Rolling Stone alone is not the lone problem here; wherever sin, hatred, and violence are sold for the sake of profit, both the seller and the buyer are to blame. Let’s face it: the image would not have appeared on the cover if it did not attract attention. The fact that the decision “sells” only reveals a wider social and moral problem.

The response from the editors of the magazine shows a redirection of the debate from the cover to the story in the magazine. It is unclear if this is intended or if the editorial team did not comprehend what is the real issue of the complaints. The criticism directed at the magazine (even by Boston’s mayor) does not actually address the article on the bombing suspect (I doubt most of the Facebook supporters even read the article). I could not find anyone saying the article should not have been written (if the article was even noticed). The criticism is exclusively leveled at the cover photo! For the editors, the choice was justified because they wanted to show that the suspect “is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers” (Source: USA Today). That’s somewhat like responding to the criticism not to advertise cars with scantily clothed women on the hood by saying that cars are important transportation vehicles and status symbols to their buyers. The cars are not the problem! It is the decision to advertise one thing with the help of another by allowing the public status of the other to impact the decision to purchase the former (this is my way of getting around the use of “cars” and “scantily clothed women”). In the widespread response, some have supported the decision as “solid journalism” (in contrast to “tabloid journalism”) (Source: The Christian Science Monitor). I am not convinced that the lines are altogether clear here. If this decision does not reflect a lack of value for ethical decision, it shows at least a lack of comprehension for what constitutes ethics in the world of media, journalism, images, and publicity. My sense is that the absence of ethics is a systemic problem in the mass media world.

In the realm of ethical theories, the one I would want to highlight here is the original meaning of “ethics” as “habits.” I am not saying that the editors of the Rolling Stone have no morals. What I am saying is that the ethics behind the decision was not based on the habits of a community that could sustain the correct behavior. Mass media and their institutions have never developed a set of habits that the editors could have relied upon. Most decisions are probably made in an ad hoc fashion required by the situation and under the pressure of a publishing deadline. I am convinced the Rolling Stone had legal support present when the decision was made–but did they have moral support personnel? When I completed my graduate degree in media science 20 years ago, I did not find a single course about media ethics. What exactly would be the job title of a moral support person? I have not seen a priest, or a pastor, or a chaplain, or a counselor among editorial teams. Not that those people have a moral advantage. What they do offer is a tradition instilled with habits that value truth, honor, integrity, love. Our media need to find themselves in a community that supports the right habits. Our media need renewal from the inside out.

So how do we bring ethics into our media world? Undoubtedly we are dominated by media in the twenty-first century. Media are not bad in themselves, it is the way that we use the media that needs to be examined (both as sellers and buyers). What would you say to the Rolling Stone? As a Christian, it’s easy to say that the renewal I envision needs to come from the Holy Spirit. But just how do we envision such spiritual discernment to take place in an editorial meeting? What process needs to be installed to establish and nurture habits that value less what sells and more what edifies? Who needs to participate in such a process without simply writing blog posts and searching for a “dislike” button on Facebook? I have at least one idea where to start: prayer … but, of course, that’s just a habit.

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Wolfgang Vondey
This entry was posted by on Wednesday, July 17th, 2013 at 6:09 pm and is filed under Faith & Culture, Holistic Formation. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “Rolling Stone, Boston Marathon & the Renewal of Ethics in the Media”

  1. Archie Wright says:

    Wolfgang, I would imagine there were likely people in the room who argued against the publication of the picture of the bomber, but their moral objections were likely overruled by the desire to create an edition that would catch the eye of the public and in this case create the desired controversy. Ethics seem to be tossed out the door in the media market for the sake of the desire to draw readers. I think in this case it may have backfired, but it is highly possible and unfortunate that the cover may produce the desired result of RS – sell more copies.