Journalism

Should Media Outlets Have Pulled the Kate Middleton Photo?

Deposit Photos

A Kate Middleton photo designed to quiet social media rumors accomplished just the opposite when outlets realized it had been doctored.

The United Kingdom celebrates Mother’s Day in March, a couple of months ahead of the United States. The Royal Family might have hoped a Kate Middleton photo released in time for a Mother’s Day celebration would have quelled rumors about her health.

Middleton, the Princess of Wales, had what Buckingham Palace described as “planned abdominal surgery” on Jan. 16. She is scheduled to return to her royal duties after Easter. The surgery is said to have gone well. But no one has seen Kate in public since then. One photo showing her riding on the passenger side of a car driven by her mother is the only exception.

Still, people fascinated by celebrities found themselves caught up in the waiting game. When would we see her again? How would she look? What was the surgery really about?

When the Royal Family released this new photo, it immediately became news. The story quickly became a top news story in Britain and the photo had almost 50 million views on the X social media platform by the end of the day, the Associated Press reported.

But within hours, it became news for a very different reason.

Aren’t all celebrity photos retouched?

Within hours of the photo’s release, people started noticing “inconsistencies.” Suddenly, the wire services that circulated them — among them, Getty Images, Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press — issued “mandatory kill” orders. Essentially, that means that they’re asking their members to stop using the photos at once.

Yes, that might be an odd thing to do but it’s not all that rare. There are certainly times when the authenticity or even the copyright clearance of a photo may fall into question. At times like that, wire services will insist the photo’s use be discontinued.

Middleton, despite being a princess, is a celebrity. This brings up a very interesting question: Aren’t all celebrity photos touched up a bit? Isn’t photo editing a fact of life?

I graduated from high school more years ago than I’d care to admit and even back then, they retouched yearbook photos, particularly for seniors.

Computer editing software makes retouching photos particularly easier these days. You’d probably be hard-pressed to find a celebrity photo that didn’t have a bit of digital “help” before it was published.

But this case was very different

Most of the time, a photo accompanying a news story is, to a degree, window dressing. A photo about a fire at a public building may show a photo of big flames coming out of a window. The photo isn’t required to tell the story. At the same time, the photo provides a deeper understanding of the story.

It’s one thing to use a photo of a famous singer, for example, when said singer has just won a Grammy Award. Likewise, it’s not inappropriate to use a formal portrait of a political candidate when that candidate wins a primary.

But in this case, the photo wasn’t window dressing. The photo was the story. Specifically, the photo was supposedly intended to show how great Middleton looked after her surgery.

So in this case, any digital editing called its usefulness — and appropriateness — into question.

Check out the Associated Press photo policy

In an article about the decision to kill the photo, AP said its editorial standards require that images be accurate. It adds that the AP does not use “altered or digitally manipulated” images.

Do retouched images count? Here’s what it says:

AP’s news values and principles explain that minor photo editing, including cropping and toning and color adjustments, are acceptable when necessary for clear and accurate reproduction and should maintain the authentic nature of the photograph.

Associated Press policy doesn’t allow changes of “density, contrast, color and saturation levels that substantially alter the original scene.” It also prohibits backgrounds from being “digitally blurred or eliminated by burning down or by aggressive toning.”

It even prohibits the removal of “red eye.” Seem like overkill? Well, if they want authentic photos, they have to pay that level of attention.

Should wire services have pulled the image?

The Kate Middleton photo seemed to go beyond this level of “minor” editing. In fact, People magazine listed 16 “editing errors” sharp-eyed viewers discovered. I might add that the people who found all 16 examined that photo far more closely than I ever would have. On top of that, The Daily Mail listed multiple conspiracy theories the photo prompted.

But then that’s rather the point about this controversy: unless the errors are so glaring that the average viewer would have seen them all, wire services probably wouldn’t have either.

After the image fell under heavier and heavier scrutiny, wire services realized something was amiss. Middleton herself issued an apology for the altered image on X, formerly Twitter:

Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing. I wanted to express my apologies for any confusion the family photograph we shared yesterday caused. I hope everyone celebrating had a very happy Mother’s Day.

The fallout for the Royals may be pretty big. But at the same time, to at least some extent, they brought it on themselves by submitting a photo with so many “issues.”

As much as people obsess over every single detail when it comes to that family, it’s hard to imagine that they couldn’t have seen this coming. Certainly their public relations team should have.

The wire services were absolutely right to kill the image in this case. Perhaps they should have looked as closely as the Royals-obsessed crowd did. On the other hand, one might argue that the blow-up over the editing told an even bigger story than a seemingly happy picture would have.

The world of artificial intelligence poses a serious threat to the integrity of images. Journalists now face a big challenge when it comes to screening images. This debacle serves as proof that journalists can’t automatically trust what should seem like a trusted source when it comes to images being what they appear to be.

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

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