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23Jan 2013

CJR: The Swimsuit Edition

Columbia Journalism Review-Jan/Feb 2013 cover

Earlier this month, my Tracker colleague Paul Raeburn posted a detailed and substantive critique of Columbia Journalism Review's big cover story in this year's first issue, which he described as a deeply flawed take-down of diet and health reporting by The Atlantic's David Freedman. I'm not planning to pile onto those story criticisms though.

I'm here to criticize the cover illustration that went with it.

I've posted an image of that cover, which features the jokey teaser headline for Freeman's piece "Why is Diet Research So Thin?" But really the headline is only secondary to the main focus of this cover which appears to be a swimsuit model. In fact, a thin yet nicely endowed model wearing a two piece suit with a, um,  slightly suggestive top.

Really, CJR? Your idea of illustrating a story on the complexities of weight-loss science, health journalism, and the genuine struggles that many people have with obesity is a glossily polished, swimsuit-clad woman on the cover? That conveys the central idea of Freedman's story?  Which would logically be that the only point of health journalism is to get us girls to look better on the beach?

Or - as seems more likely - are you just taking a cynical "sex sells" approach here?

I suspect the latter, obviously, but what makes that such a strange conclusion is when one considers the magazine's basic audience. As smarter people than me have pointed out on Twitter (thanks to Kathleen Raven for starting the discussion) CJR is a primarily a trade publication, one aimed at raising the bar in journalistic practice. It's read mostly by working journalists and journalism eductors, male and female alike.

And speaking as one representative of the female slice of that audience - and as a long time fan of the magazine - I hope that this doesn't indicate a trend in how CJR presents itself. I'm not arguing that this is a major journalistic crisis. But I would like to argue that cheap salesmanship cheapens the product itself.

                                                                                                                                                                                               --- Deborah Blum

Comments

I do agree with your suggestion Deborah about the swimsuit edition. However, this is a marketing  strategy. Posting bold pics and title in cover page, helps the company to increase their magazine sale.

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Thanks, Deborah, for writing about this. I did tweet that I was (still am) "a bit offended" by the Jan/Feb because I wanted CJR (and anyone on Twitter) to know.

As others have already put it: If this cover was a parody, it wasn't a good one. But I'm suspicious of the parody argument at all. I've read CJR since I was a freshman journalism student (though have not always had a subscription) and never had I seen a cover quite like this.

On CJR's site are all of the cover issues going back to 2002 http://www.cjr.org/issues/ . They are all creative, colorful, thoughtful. Not a one (as far as I can see) is parody-like or mocking. (Actually, until Jul/Aug designers used a wide banner across the entire image.) I understand the need to go out on a limb and try new things, but a super-model body is not new, it's only a new thing to CJR. Deborah said it best: "But I would like to argue that cheap salesmanship cheapens the product itself." And that echoes my concern.

Of course, a year or so from now the laws of supply and demand may dictate that we will all be tapping a tiny CJR cover icon on our mobile device.

Hi, John - Yeah, I do get that the idea was a parody and I don't think, as I said in the piece, that this is a crisis. But I wanted to raise the issue in a straightforward way because this kind of image- the barely dressed woman approach which is used to sell so many magazines - is often used without even thinking about the message it sends. I'm not saying that CJR didn't think about the image - Cyndi says, for instance, that they picked a  model who had some defined musculature. Still, there are so many images - yeah, the male wrestler or a cartoon woman or a woman with more clothes -  that would have spoofed the health magazine effect without looking like another skin cover. And the off-list response I've gotten from women has been much more consistently unhappy than that from men. My favorite was a comment on Facebook from a woman who wrote "She has nice breasts. And that was the only thing that didn't infuriate me about the cover." So my point is that these kinds of images, these constant "female body on display" covers, also send a message and my preference is that we need to see this as something that matters,  to grow up and get past them.

Thanks, Deborah. I guess sex appeal is in the eye of the beholder, because we did reject other shots for that very reason. This model had muscles.

Deborah--I had the same immediate reaction (how sexist) but once I saw the content I got that it was a parody and accepted it. I give CJR a pass on this one--though maybe I wouldn't if they had use some male bodybuilder!

Cyndi - It's nice to see you joining the conversation as editor in chief of the magazine. And it's definitely been an interesting discussion both here and on Twitter. I do appreciate that there's an effort at parody here. I think that the problem lies with the overtly sexual stock photo - if there had been an actual parody of the model type then perhaps it could have made the point more effectively. Or so I would propose here.

  Yawn. That's my reaction to the cover. It is boring and useless. Plus lazy. A send-up ought to have wit. This one does not. If one runs a cover that looks like the come-on fronting a Glamour Magazine diet issue, but is a parody, a second glance at the art ought to have something giving it away, apart from the text itself. The model is not posed or dressed at all provocatively so, I have to say, the image is no sex-sells item. The flaw here is not that it panders. It is that it does nothing. It needs a twist....

   Like maybe a scythe in the background, reaper style, saying "the last diet you'll ever try," or the outline of a coffin or an open grave behind the perky skinny thing. I dunno really. Art's not my trade. This cover does not even qualify as a toss-off.

Michael Moyer hit the nail on the head. This is a stock photo that is supposed to call to mind the health-and-fitness covers that hit newsstands every January. And the exaggerated coverlines are meant to ensure that the cover is intended as commentary, not to be taken at face value.

Newsstand sales account for less than 1% of CJR's circulation. We do, however, want to invite discussion of the issues depicted--so thank you for that.

Thanks, Olivia. That's my take too. Yes, it's a spoof but they didn't pull it off - if they'd wanted to be witty they could have done a twist on the standard model. And what they did pull off is putting a shiny model on display - which, obviously,  I think, undermines the point

Yes, we women get that it's a spoof. That doesn't automatically make it an effective one, though. Just because you want to be clever doesn't mean you are clever!

The cover is a spoof of women's magazines like Self and Glamour—the publications that run the superficial health stories that Freedman criticizes in his piece. To me, it screams "health science lite!" It's certainly arguable whether the approach is appropriate for an august publication like the CJR, but I think the motivation was to be clever—not to crudely put a model on the cover for the sake of putting a model on the cover. 

That is bad cover art, no doubt about it.

Love this, Deborah. I know men who say they don't like seeing violence against women in movies, but somehow, the scriptwriters keep putting it in the movies - they just have the bad guys doing it.
Does snark about shallowness still promote shallowness?
Good question.

Let's get an fMRI and see whether a swimsuit model is a swimsuit model is a swimsuit model - no matter what you intended. I think the brain image may be just the same - no matter the intention.

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