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Time‘s Rick Stengel Explains Reasoning Behind Bold Cover Image

This week’s Time magazine cover might startle you. It might make you a bit uncomfortable. And that’s exactly what Rick Stengel, the magazine’s managing editor, intended. The cover image shows 18-year-old Aisha, an Afghan woman who, after leaving her abusive in-laws, had her nose and ears cut off by the Taliban. The story’s headline reads: What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.

Stengel wrote an accompanying letter explaining the decision behind the cover image and story about “how Afghan women have embraced the freedoms that have come from the defeat of the Taliban — and how they fear a Taliban revival”:

I thought long and hard about whether to put this image on the cover of TIME. First, I wanted to make sure of Aisha’s safety and that she understood what it would mean to be on the cover. She knows that she will become a symbol of the price Afghan women have had to pay for the repressive ideology of the Taliban.

Additionally, Stengel writes that he is aware that children will see the image, and had consulted with child psychologists to discuss the potential impact. He apologized to readers who find the image “too strong.” But Stengel is firmly supportive of the image and explains why he feels it is important:

But bad things do happen to people, and it is part of our job to confront and explain them. In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening — and what can happen — in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban’s treatment of women than ignore it. I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.

[emphasis ours]

This reasoning follows what many might agree is the definition and purpose of good journalism. The things that are hard to look at are often the things that are most necessary to look at. Whether readers think the cover is bold or too graphic, the shock value cannot be denied. Without diminishing the value of telling a difficult story about a seemingly endless war, it’s hard not to wonder how the shock value will translate in terms of newsstand sales.

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