Opinion: Is the media responsible for our criminal obession?

Elaina Sauber

Elania Sauber

This has been a year of numerous high-profile court cases and shocking verdicts. The media often face public outrage for looking in-depth into these cases and criminals to the point of sensationalism. Last month, “Rolling Stone” magazine was harshly criticized for featuring a “glam photo” of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover, describing “How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed By His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.” The magazine was accused by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino of supporting the “terrible message that destruction gains fame for killers and their ‘causes.’” Stores such as Walgreens and CVS refused to sell copies of the magazine, which features a story detailing Tsarnaev’s life as a promising student and his descent into violent radicalism.

However, “Rolling Stone” defended its decision to feature him on the cover, and the story’s reporter, Janet Reitman, said she was “very satisfied” with the final product. What speaks volumes are the sales numbers. The Magazine Information Network released data which show that “based on point of sales from 1,420 retailers between July 19 and July 29, sales of the issue jumped 102 percent over average per-issue sales for the past year.” “Rolling Stone” has been criticized in the past for its shocking cover photos, and this incident was not unlike the magazine’s decision to feature Charles Manson on June 15, 1970.

The issue’s success, despite wide condemnation, raises an important question: Is the media’s perceived sensationalizing of criminals less ethical than the public’s interest in understanding the minds and motives of those criminals? Where some perceive glorification of evil, others see an opportunity to learn from devastating events — to understand that killers such as Tsarnaev began as human beings, and to ask what causes seemingly normal people to commit horrific acts of violence.

Another look into media and public interest in criminals came earlier this month when Ariel Castro’s house was demolished after his sentence of life in prison plus 1,000 years. Joseph Frolik of the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office said the decision came to demolish the house because “we didn’t want some kind of gruesome, macabre shrine, if you will, that would get gawkers and curiosity seekers.”

Elsie Cintron, who lives on the same street as the Castro house, said “it was just a constant reminder of what happened. People would come by and take pictures. It was ongoing — day and night.” On August 7 — the same day as the home’s demolition — interior photos used as evidence in the court case were published online after being released by the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office. These photos were received with all the expected disgust from the public, although unlike the “Rolling Stone” issue, there was no outrage toward the media.

We are obsessed with the minds of criminals. The media is often accused of sensationalizing their cowardly acts, but we are just as accountable for our interest in them. Instead of being angry with media coverage of criminals and suspects, we should learn what we can about people such as Tsarnaev and Castro and use that knowledge in a proactive way to prevent tragedies before they occur in the future.