Rolling Stone commonly mixes political commentary- quite good commentary, I believe- alongside its regular beat of the music industry. Normally, the musical articles occupy the cover, but for the newest issue, the August issue, Rolling Stone opted to allow politics to have the cover instead.
It was not a wise decision. The article they chose for the cover, written by Janet Reitman, concerns the process by which Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving we-have-to-say-the-word-alleged Boston Marathon bomber, became the kind of person that would do such a thing. To give it the cover spot, Rolling Stone chose to use a headshot of Tsarnaev. Now, if one wanted to give that story the cover, the headshot was really the only way you could logically go. He's the subject of the article, after all; any other choice of photo would be misleading as to the content. But giving him a cover photo, no matter the context, gives him a cover shot in a major magazine, and a rather flattering shot at that. And that is how Rolling Stone came to catch fire for their decision, leading to protests and calls for boycotts of the magazine in response to what is seen as an immortalization of the culprit. (This is not Rolling Stone's first ride at this particular rodeo; in 1970, they put Charles Manson on the cover, for a story that was also about the culprit as opposed to the victims, and got a similar response.)
Now, the primary response has not been all that well thought out. One of the many mock-up alternate covers circulating on social media, reflecting the opinion of outraged respondents, reads 'Boston Strong' and provides headshots of the victims instead. To provide a cover like that, or any of the related covers, as sympathetic as it might be, would be wildly misleading and actually irresponsible from a journalistic standpoint. As good as the intentions are, the article is not about the victims at all. It it about the perpetrator and the process that turned him into one. Making a cover depicting the victim in an article that is not about the victim is the response of someone who has not read the article and has no intention to read it.
A much better decision, a simpler decision, and one nobody seems to be considering, is that perhaps this should not have been the cover story to begin with. This is a music magazine, after all, and usually puts music on the cover. There's no reason that could not have been done here as well regardless of the relative importance of the stories. The cover lists off articles about Willie Nelson and Jay-Z and Robin Thicke. They could have gotten the cover shot. There is no reasonable way, I think, to get away from using the article that is entirely about Tsarnaev as the cover story without putting Tsarnaev on the cover. But Tsarnaev should not have the cover. Therefore, as highly as the article must have been thought of to merit a cover, it should not have gotten further than a spot on the sideline. Had Robin Thicke gotten the cover, and the Tsarnaev article been advertised on the side of the cover, none of this controversy happens. Rolling Stone might be briefly mocked for putting Robin Thicke on the cover of anything, but that'd be the limit of it.
A response to the immortalization point is that Tsarnaev's image has already been used extensively, and that therefore there is no further harm in using it for the cover. I reject this argument, and here's why. This same argument, or something similar to it, is used commonly to justify covering stories that don't need to be covered nearly to the extent that they are, or something that is barely newsworthy in the first place if it's even worth covering at all. The defense is to hide amongst the masses; to say that the coverage, in essence, justifies further coverage. Everyone else is reporting it, and that makes it newsworthy or okay to report yourself. This is the kind of thought process that brought us the 2000 election coverage fiasco, that often brings us saturation coverage of what is normally nothing more than tabloid fodder, and that brings us countless instances of innocent people wrongly accused of crimes and convicted in the court of public opinion before the facts are in. Just that kind of thing happened, actually, early on in the bombing coverage, when at least four different people were wrongly accused of the attack, most notably missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi, who was found dead on April 23 near Providence, Rhode Island. Coverage need not justify further coverage. It is on the shoulders of each and every person who considers reporting a given story to determine for themselves whether they personally have some value to add to the coverage, or whether their information is as accurate as it can possibly be. If an image is in poor taste, you always have the option of not running that image, no matter how many others have run it already.
The cycle can always stop with you.