Kate Middleton’s Photoshop manipulation is a wake up call to the threat of misinformation

This post is by Articles: Digital Photography Review (dpreview.com) from Articles: Digital Photography Review (dpreview.com)
This image, released by the UK’s Royal family on March 10, 2024, was later found to have been manipulated. Several news agencies took the rare step of issuing a ‘photo kill.’

Image credit: Kensington Palace

The best way to turn a few burning embers into a roaring fire is to give it oxygen. That’s just what we saw this week when a photo of Kate Middleton, Princess of Wales, that was in part meant to show she was perfectly safe, healthy and happy was found to have been digitally altered. The photo backfired, royally.

What happened with Kate Middleton’s photo?

The picture was shared through social media and provided as a handout to media on March 10, 2024.

It should have been a humdrum affair; last Sunday was Mother’s Day in the UK, and Kensington Palace published a picture of Kate with her children. It was the first official photo of Kate, who has been in the public eye since a January abdominal surgery. During her absence, there were rumors and increasing speculation about her health and whereabouts, and the photo was pulling double duty to show she was doing great. That should have been the end, but instead, the royal family Photoshopped their way into a scandal.

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Upon the photo’s release on March 10, several social media posts pointed out odd inconsistencies that suggested the image may have been manipulated. Later in the day, news agencies that had distributed the photo confirmed some of the allegations and notified newsrooms of edits they’d uncovered that contradicted journalistic norms for news photography, The Guardian reported.

“It appeared the source had manipulated the image in a way that did not meet AP’s photo standards,” the AP wrote in its ‘kill’ notice. Reuters, Getty Images and Agence France-Presse also took the same rarely-used action of alerting newsrooms to ‘kill’ the photo. The UK’s largest agency, PA Media, had initially resisted issuing a similar order to remove the image, saying they were seeking clarification from the royal family. The next day, they reported, “In the absence of that clarification, we are killing the image from our picture service.”

Among the tells: a hand not aligning naturally with a sweater sleeve, a zipper that abruptly ends and starts again a few pixels to the right and various points of oddly blurred hair and misaligned straight lines that confirm edits were made.

The metadata also shows that the file was edited twice, once at 9:54 pm (GMT) on March 8, 2024, and then again at 9:39 am (GMT) the next day. Kensington Palace claims Prince William took the photo earlier in the week in Windsor, but the file does not reveal when the photo was taken. Several online reports have also suggested it was taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, but our independent verification did not reveal such information.

About 24 hours after the image’s release, the Prince and Princess of Wales confirmed on social media that the photo had been manipulated. Kate explained it as an “experiment with editing.”

An apology for photo manipulation was issued on social media just over 24 hours after the initial release of the altered official photo handout.

The fallout further fueled a fervor about the absence of the royals from public life this year. This attempt to pass a heavily manipulated image as authentic only reignited rumors and outright conspiracy theories on the health and safety of the Princess of Wales.

Don’t keep calm and carry on

On the surface, this may seem like much ado about nothing. Let’s take the apology at face value. It may be easy to dismiss it as an edited family photo carelessly manipulated by a mother trying to make her family look perfect. Defenders of the royals have argued that manipulating social media images is a fact of life and played up a whataboutism spin of “everyone is doing it.”

But this is not just any photo; this was an official handout from a seat of power entered into the public record as authentic and factual. The UK monarchy may essentially be ceremonial today, but as a head of state for the British government, its actions signal to others what is ‘proper’ or acceptable. There is also an expectation that the monarchy will be truthful to the public. Setting a precedent that news images can be fake is not an ideal message to send. There is a higher standard at play in this case.

AP’s ‘kill’ notice.Reuters’ ‘kill’ notice.

The photo was released, at best, as a mistake and, at worst, as intentional misdirection, but it does not matter whether the motives were malicious or careless.

As the British Press Photographrers’ Association pointed out, it’s also concerning that the family did not recognize the importance of truth in images and “… whether there is something else behind their actions is not as important as getting the message out there that it is wrong.”

“News consumers need to be able to trust that the news reported to them is truthful.”

Troubling still, once the manipulation was brought to light, Kensington Palace rebuked media requests to release the unedited image. Doing so would allow the record to be corrected and to get a fuller sense of how the manipulation came to be. One of the goals of journalism is to be a first draft of history by accurately gathering the day’s events and then reporting them on behalf of the public to maintain an informed citizenry. This is a big deal.

This moment is also a wake-up call to news agencies to re-evaluate policies toward using and distributing handout photos. The agencies failed to recognize the need to apply the same journalistic standards for verification to a handout image that they apply to a first-time freelancer working on an assignment for them.

“The agencies failed to recognize the need to apply the same journalistic standards for verification to a handout image that they apply to a first-time freelancer.”

Handout photos from any entity are essentially PR images (it’s why at DPReview we take our own product photos and publish out-of-camera sample images). This is a moment when the press needs to make a definitive call about whether to treat handouts from anyone, including the monarchy, as a source of news or as a source of PR.

Beyond rethinking handout policies, I hope every newsroom that has accepted handouts from Kensington Palace is re-examining everything in its archive. It’s all questionable now and throws doubt over everything ever released as an official handout from the royal family.

Ethics and why holding power accountable to truth matters

In a span of a few hours, we moved from a fairly pedestrian handout for tabloid fodder into a controversy about image manipulation, the use of handouts by news media and seats of (ceremonial) power leveraging images to spin a narrative.

An explanation has been shared. Whether it is true or not is beside the point. It happened. It shouldn’t have happened.

To see the UK’s royal family suggest through their actions that doctoring photos and passing them as authentic is kosher is troubling. As figureheads for the state, along with ribbon cuttings and charity work, they set the tone for suitable etiquette and grace. To offer a half-hearted ‘oopsie’ apology and double down on refusing to correct the record with an unedited photo is unsettling.

“To knowingly hand out falsified images to the public and the press and tell journalists they are authentic is akin to handing newsrooms a ticking timebomb to sit on.”

Even if you prefer to ignore the UK royal family, they have an influence on global affairs as representatives of the British government. World leaders meet with them, industry titans discuss policy with them, and causes are taken up at their behest. When the queen addresses climate change or a princess shakes hands with an AIDS patient, it makes headlines.

Kate-gate (from the school of everything is a ‘gate’ in the US) is also about the integrity of news photos and the credibility of journalists during a time when attacks and mistrust of journalists are at historic highs. To knowingly hand out falsified images to the public and the press and tell journalists they are authentic is akin to handing newsrooms a ticking timebomb to sit on. This is why the reaction from the AP, Getty, Reuters and other newsrooms has been quick and decisive. News consumers need to trust that the news reported to them is truthful.

It should also not be lost that we’re having this discussion during a time of weaponized misinformation and the dawn of AI-generated images lowering the threshold for anyone to attempt to mislead others.

In this case, a closer look made the manipulation fairly obvious, but as AI image generation improves, looking closely may not make it so easy. This royal attempt at Photoshop manipulation is our wake-up call to the threat of misinformation. It’s not as hard as you might think. Even the people at the top who should know better are capable of doing it (purposely or not). And the next time around, it may not be so poorly done to where we notice it.

About 20 manipulations have been identified in the official handout image so far. Here are three of them: 1. A line in the background appears to have shifted. 2. A zipper abruptly ends and begins again a few pixels over. 3. A wrist does not align with the sweater.

Avoiding another dodgy affair

One silver lining: amid the posts about “I also edit my photos” and “Leave Kate alone,” I’ve also seen many, many more wondering where the line should be when it comes to photos shared by people with influence for images that are presented as news.

It does my heart good and gives me hope that the world has taken an interest in photo manipulation and ethics, if only for a moment. We should expect better from images that purport to represent something that actually happened, and not something that someone idealized in their mind and wished happened. Be that three kids smiling with eyes open simultaneously or something more serious.

It’s good to see that truth still matters.

Lest I leave you in despair, let me offer some solutions. Moving forward, there are some tactics the press and the public can use to spot potential misinformation.

“The photo backfired, royally.”

By year’s end, expect to see some open-source authentication software that will allow anyone to check an image’s provenance and authenticity to know when an image was made and how it was edited before it was shared. C2PA and CAI authentication standards will be built into cameras and software to give us the tools to verify and practice media literacy.

In a case like the royal photo, such implementation would have captured in great detail what was done in each edit and not just a date stamp that an edit occurred. News agencies would have been able to verify the image history and ‘kill’ it for manipulation before sharing it with the public as authentic. Once published, you and I can also do our independent check with CAI tools.

A lower-tech consideration is to look at the captions associated with a photo. Captions can tell us the who/what/where, and the intention of how the image is meant to be seen. In the royal photo, the text tacitly acknowledged the speculation about Kate not being seen in public. Few other details were offered, but this suggested a possible motivation for why the photo was shared (and why the fallout has only reignited more speculation).

Such tools and methods may help, but newsrooms must also be more responsible for how they use handouts, and they need to establish new norms going forward. My advice: stop using handout images. If a photo of Kate is newsworthy, then newsrooms must insist on being allowed to take their own pictures. Years of disinvestment in photojournalism and accepting handout photos as ‘news’ have made it possible for something like Kate’s manipulated PR photo to attempt to masquerade as a news photo.

“If a photo of Kate is newsworthy, then newsrooms must insist on being allowed to take their own pictures.”

Time will tell what comes from the fallout in the coming weeks and years. Will this be a footnote about a photo that launched a thousand conspiracy theories, or will it start a needed conversation about world leaders and their responsibility to truth, which will help lead to real accountability?

This brings us to a crossroads: do we make jokes and move on, forgetting what happened here? Or do we question if we should allow people in power to put out only the images they approve so that we can accept them as factual? The choice is up to you, my friend.