How a doctored photo of the Princess of Wales triggered a media crisis

Paul Clarke, a veteran photographer, was out rowing on the River Thames in the rain Sunday when his phone started lighting up.

The royal family had just released a photo of Catherine, Princess of Wales, and her three children — officially, a greeting in honor of Mother’s Day in Britain, yet one that also arrived amid frenzied speculation about the future queen’s striking absence from the public eye since abdominal surgery in January.

Clarke is an expert in the art of editing and retouching photos, and friends wanted his opinion of the image. He quickly noticed some, uh — inconsistencies.

What was up with Princess Charlotte’s hand, which seemed distorted by the cuff of her sleeve? Why were her mother’s fingers so blurry against the crisp knit of Prince Louis’s sweater? Were those glints of professional catchlights in the family’s eyes, in a photo supposedly snapped by Prince William? The photo, Clarke noted in a social media post that quickly went viral, contained “numerous … manipulations easily visible.”

He added: “What *were* they thinking?”

Within hours, the major news wire services that had circulated the palace photos — companies such as Getty Images, Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press — were asking clients to stop using it because of concerns that the image had been altered in violation of their ethical standards. And on Monday, Catherine apologized: “Like many amateur photographers,” she explained in an official statement, she had “experiment[ed] with editing.”

The incident highlighted a growing clash between two sets of media standards. On one side, the ever-heightening expectations of celebrity perfection — smooth faces and cellulite-free thighs, best achieved with a little Photoshopping. On the other, certain ideals of journalistic transparency and integrity that are increasingly under assault as artificial intelligence deepfakes and cries of “fake news” have wormed their way into culture.

It also raised questions about whether an awkward crisis PR effort by Kensington Palace to address mounting anxiety and wild conspiracy theories about Catherine — whose last public appearance was Christmas Day — had only exacerbated the situation.

Again: “What were they thinking?” echoed Sally Bedell Smith, a royal biographer. “If, as speculated, the photo was manipulated in a fairly major way, then it does create a rather large credibility problem.”

But Clarke, who sees no conspiracy (merely “ineptitude”), thinks the credibility question is misplaced. Why shouldn’t the royal family want to touch up an image? “We all want photos of our children smiling.”

The question, he said, is whether media outlets were too quick to pass it along to the public — too willing, in other words, to present a too-pretty picture as news.

Journalistic ethics demand that images published in news outlets depict reality, free from postproduction manipulation such as Photoshop or other editing software. Editors also must ensure the veracity of photos that were taken in uncertain circumstances. Images from the war in Ukraine, for example, have been analyzed pixel by pixel for evidence of potential misinformation.

And calling out images that were created by artificial intelligence without proper labeling has become a virtual cottage industry in the media world.

But in the VIP realm that the royals inhabit, Photoshopping isn’t merely accepted — it’s expected.

Fashion magazines and celebrity-focused publications don’t adhere to the same standards as newsgathering outlets when it comes to photos, frequently retouching the subjects of their cover shoots and profiles, in the service of selling an aspirational lifestyle.

In 1989, TV Guide grafted Oprah Winfrey’s head onto actress Ann-Margret’s more svelte figure. Complex magazine slimmed Kim Kardashian’s waist and hips in a 2009 image.

Vogue “smoothed a line here, and shaved a line on my neck,” Lena Dunham recalled to Grantland’s Bill Simmons, about her 2014 cover shoot, though adding that she felt “completely respected.” (When Jezebel later published the unretouched images, “It felt gross,” she said.)

Some celebrities have called out magazines for over-manipulating photos: In 2003, Kate Winslet told the BBC a British GQ cover shoot “reduced the size of my legs by about a third.”

Today, though, our phones and computers have put similar technology within reach for the average Facebook user who just wants a more flattering profile shot. This is the very human misdemeanor to which the princess has confessed — and one palace insider chalked it up as “an innocent, naive mistake” that the public will quickly forgive.

“She owned up to it,” said Dickie Arbiter, a former spokesman for Queen Elizabeth II, which he said was “more than the photo agencies did. … It was a genuine mistake that was perpetuated by photo agencies who didn’t check. They put the picture out and only killed it hours later.”

The AP published a lengthy explainer for its “photo kill” order, saying that its rules prohibit altered or digitally manipulated images beyond minor photo editing, such as cropping or color adjusting — nothing that would alter the original scene of the photo.

“Changes in density, contrast, color and saturation levels that substantially alter the original scene are not acceptable,” the AP said. “Backgrounds should not be digitally blurred or eliminated by burning down or by aggressive toning.” The AP also does not allow for the removal of “red eye.”

Similarly, Reuters said that its “Handbook of Journalism” only allows for limited use of Photoshop. “We use only a tiny part of its potential capability to format our pictures, crop and size them and balance the tone and color,” the news service said.

Susan Keith, a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, applauded these standards.

“I understand the impulse in this moment, when we are bombarded with disinformation and misinformation, to try to make sure that the public knows what they’re seeing,” she said. “That’s at the heart of what these news agencies are doing.”

By removing the royal photos from circulation, Keith added, the news services sent Kensington Palace a serious message about their commitment to transparency and accuracy.

It is rare for the AP to yank a photo, though the agency doesn’t hesitate when an image’s credibility is questioned. In 2011, it killed a photo when editors learned that the photographer had manipulated the image to cover up his own shadow. In a memo to staff, director of photography Santiago Lyon called the incident “deliberate and misleading,” according to Poynter.

In a more egregious example, a 2017 investigation by BBC Brasil revealed that purported war photographer “Eduardo Martins” — a fake name, as it turned out — had been stealing, doctoring and passing off images of conflict in Iraq, Syria and Gaza for years to established media organizations around the world. Before news of the scam emerged, the photos were published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice and the BBC, among others, and Martins had garnered a growing reputation in the international photojournalism community, along with more than 100,000 followers on Instagram.

In a closer analysis of the fake photos, São Paulo photographer Ignácio Aronovich found that Martins had flipped some of the images he stole to make them harder to trace online, the Guardian reported. Another image showed Martins holding a camera that appeared to be missing a shutter button. In a statement to the Guardian, Getty Images said it had removed all photos credited to Martins.

But at a time when much of the journalism industry faces steep budget cuts, many newsrooms no longer have the resources and staffing to catch every infraction, Keith said.

“It’s probably good that there are a lot of internet sleuths doing this work for themselves,” she added.

Still, this was not a war zone. It was a picture of some kids and their mom. Which made the fakery both ridiculous and — for anyone who has ever tried to get three kids to stay still and smile at the same time — kind of sympathetic.

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The celebrity standard of perfection is even more heightened for royals, who are expected not only to look attractive but to project all the aspirations and ideals of an entire nation.

The princess famously managed to look flawless for a hospital photo shoot with the next heir to the throne, Prince George, only hours after giving birth to him. There’s no question that any photos of Catherine looking less than immaculate after her abdominal surgery this winter would have triggered as much speculation and chatter as the utter absence of images has.

“Maybe there is a culminated impact on her to have to meet that unrealistic standard,” said Bedell Smith. “It’s a moment for them to reexamine how they portray themselves in what’s becoming a very confusing world with images.”

Catherine’s father-in-law seems to be making steps in that direction. Though King Charles III has largely stayed out of the public eye during his ongoing treatment for cancer, the royal Instagram account has shared images of the king holding Zoom chats with foreign leaders and greeting ambassadors behind closed doors. In a video montage, he is seen reading “get well” letters.

Bedell Smith said that Kensington Palace might have done more to reassure the public about Catherine’s health by releasing the original photo of the princess and her children — in all its unedited glory.

“It’s a good moment to realize they don’t have to be perfect,” she said. “It’s okay to look a little ragged around the images, like we all do.”

Praveena Somasundaram contributed to this report.

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