Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Screen of Photoshop, on PC

Ethical Dilemmas of Photo Editing in Media: Lessons from Kate Middleton’s Photo Controversy

Photoshop—an intelligent digital tool celebrated for enhancing the visual appearance of photographs—is a double-edged sword. While it has the power to transform and refine images, it also skillfully blurs the line between reality and fiction, challenging the legitimacy of journalistic integrity and the credibility of news media.

By retracting the photograph, media platforms reaffirm their dedication to accuracy and authenticity in reporting. In an era where misinformation proliferates, such actions are crucial in maintaining public trust in the media.

 

Case of Kate Middleton's Photo Retraction 

With the increasing use of Photoshop and other digital editing tools, the images accompanying news articles have become a pressing concern—we are left to wonder if they might be fake.

Earlier this month, on March 10, a photograph of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, released by the official Kensington Palace and published across various news platforms, sparked controversy. After close inspection, major news agencies like Associated Press, Reuters, Getty Images, and Agence France-Presse issued a "kill notice" to stop the distribution of the royal image due to apparent edits that failed to meet industry photo standards, such as inconsistencies in hand alignment and oddly blurred hair points. Although Middleton acknowledged the photo had been altered, describing it as an "experiment with editing," the incident raised broader questions about the credibility of official releases and the media's role in disseminating manipulated images.

the official picture released of Kate Middleton and her children for Mother’s Day in the U.K.

While editors, journalists, or media platforms may edit their own captured images, the situation becomes particularly challenging when they must work with official releases, especially when those releases are manipulated. This creates a conflict between their duty to report truthfully and their reliance on authoritative sources. Additionally, media outlets risk being complicit in spreading misinformation if they unknowingly publish or distribute manipulated images without proper verification.

Yet, by retracting the photograph, media platforms reaffirm their dedication to accuracy and authenticity in reporting. In an era where misinformation proliferates, such actions are crucial in maintaining public trust in the media.

Altering a photograph—even subtly—can distort reality, leading to a misrepresentation of facts and events.

 

Other Cases of Image Manipulation in War Coverage

These ethical challenges of image editing are particularly pronounced in the context of war coverage, where the stakes are high and the potential for manipulation to influence public opinion is significant.

For example, in April 2003, The Los Angeles Times printed a front-page photo of a British soldier guiding Iraqi civilians to safety near Basra. A reader later spotted duplicated civilians in the background. The photographer, Brian Walski, admitted to merging two photos taken closely in time to enhance the composition, violating the Times' policy against altering news images. As a result, the image was retracted and the photographer was fired.

Similarly, in 2006, Adnan Hajj, a Lebanese freelance photographer, digitally altered images of the aftermath of an Israeli airstrike during the Israeli war on Lebanon. Hajj exaggerated the extent of the damage and added plumes of smoke to enhance the dramatic effect. Major news outlets like Reuters subsequently published these manipulated photographs before being retracted.

Freelance photographer Adnan Hajj's before and after-manipulation photographs of 2006 fighting in Lebanon published on Reuters.

In another instance of ethical misconduct involving image editing, freelance photographer Narciso Contreras altered a photograph taken during his time in Syria in September 2013. The original image captured a Syrian opposition fighter taking cover during an exchange of fire with government forces in the village of Telata, with a fellow journalist’s video camera visible on the ground in the left corner of the frame. Contreras digitally removed the camera from the image before sending it to an Associated Press photo desk. Upon learning of the manipulation, the Associated Press severed its relationship with Contreras, stating that he had violated its ethical standards.

 

Pulitzer Prize–winning photographer Narcisco Contreras wasn’t happy with a photograph he took showing an armed Syrian opposition fighter taking cover during a firefight with government troops in Telata village.

 

The evolution of editing tools has undeniably enhanced the storytelling capabilities of photographs by allowing for adjustments in lighting, colour balance, and narrative composition. This technological advancement allows journalists and editors to present visually compelling and engaging images, effectively capturing the essence of the story they aim to tell.

However, the misuse or inappropriate use of these tools poses a significant threat to journalistic integrity. Altering a photograph—even subtly—can distort reality, leading to a misrepresentation of facts and events. In a profession built on the trust and credibility of its audience, such distortions can have profound consequences. These ethical breaches not only result in the retraction of the images but also damage the reputation of the photographers and the media outlets that publish them.

Gordon Gahan_1982, National Geographic  photo editing manipulation


Gordon Gahan's original photograph for the cover of National Geographic's February 1982 issue which was altered for aesthetics.

 

This issue is not new or confined to serious news alone; it also affects even travel features. Back in 1982, National Geographic magazine altered the cover photograph of the Great Pyramids at Giza, relocating one of the pyramids to suit the magazine's vertical format. While the magazine argued that the manipulation was necessary for aesthetic reasons, critics contended that it compromised the authenticity and integrity of the image. This seemingly minor alteration dealt a significant blow to the magazine's credibility.

 

The Impact on Public Perception

The pervasive use of manipulated images in the media has a profound impact on public perception, shaping the way audiences interpret and understand the world around them. When photographs are altered to conform to a particular narrative or agenda, they can perpetuate stereotypes, reinforce biases, and distort the truth, ultimately eroding the public's trust in the media.

A system of peer review and oversight should be in place to ensure accountability in the use of Photoshop, with all edited images undergoing thorough review by senior editors or independent fact-checkers. This additional layer of scrutiny helps to identify inaccuracies in edited images before publication.

 

How Should Media Address the Ethical Challenges of Image Editing?

Media outlets must navigate the delicate balance between artistic expression and journalistic integrity, ensuring that edited images accurately represent events or subjects and avoid manipulation to fit a particular narrative or agenda.

Rigorous fact-checking and verification processes are essential to detect and rectify instances of manipulation before they are disseminated to the public. Media organisations must invest in training their staff in digital forensics and foster a culture of scepticism and critical thinking to combat the spread of misinformation and uphold the credibility of their reporting. A system of peer review and oversight should be in place to ensure accountability in the use of Photoshop, with all edited images undergoing thorough review by senior editors or independent fact-checkers. This additional layer of scrutiny helps identify inaccuracies in edited images before publication.

 

When it involves getting data from official sources, media outlets must engage in dialogue with them to clarify any concerns regarding the provided images. They should ask for details about the circumstances surrounding the original capture of the photograph. If it's discovered that images provided by official sources are indeed altered, media agencies should retract the images and issue corrections. Additionally, they should strive to obtain and present the original, unedited photographs whenever possible to ensure the credibility of their platform.

Media outlets risk being complicit in spreading misinformation if they unknowingly publish or distribute manipulated images without proper verification.

Above all, transparency is key—journalists and media professionals must be upfront about any digital alterations made to photographs. Images that have been significantly edited should be clearly labelled or accompanied by disclaimers to inform the audience of the extent of the manipulation. This culture of transparency should also be open within editorial teams, discussing the ethical considerations and decision-making processes behind image editing.

Ultimately, the pursuit of truth should always outweigh the temptation to enhance photographs for visual impact. Media outlets play a crucial role in maintaining public trust, and by adhering to ethical standards and prioritising transparency, they can navigate the challenges of image editing responsibly and preserve the integrity of journalism in the digital age.

 

 

 

More Articles

A Report on Systematic Retaliation Against Journalists Criticizing the War on Gaza

A report from the National Writers Union details incidents and testimonies about approximately 100 journalists who faced retaliatory actions from their institutions due to their positions on the ongoing Israeli war on Gaza and their public criticism of the mainstream Western media's failure to adequately cover this war.

Mohammad Zeidan
Mohammad Zeidan Published on: 27 May, 2024
Press Freedom in Multiple EU Countries on the "Verge of Collapse" Reports Show

The European Civil Liberties Union's Media Freedom 2024 report highlights a decline in press freedom and media pluralism in several EU countries, with calls for comprehensive reforms. The report also points out biases in Western media coverage of the Israeli offensive in Gaza, including restrictions on certain terms and unbalanced reporting. It raises concerns about diminishing media pluralism, journalist prosecution and surveillance, and declining public trust in the media.

A picture of the Al Jazeera Media Institute's logo, on a white background.
Al Jazeera Journalism Review Published on: 13 May, 2024
Elections and Misinformation – India Case Study

Realities are hidden behind memes and political satire in the battle for truth in the digital age. Explore how misinformation is influencing political decisions and impacting first-time voters, especially in India's 2024 elections, and how journalists fact-check and address fake news, revealing the true impact of misinformation and AI-generated content.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 30 Apr, 2024
Amid Increasing Pressure, Journalists in India Practice More Self-Censorship

In a country where nearly 970 million people are participating in a crucial general election, the state of journalism in India is under scrutiny. Journalists face harassment, self-censorship, and attacks, especially under the current Modi-led government. Mainstream media also practices self-censorship to avoid repercussions. The future of journalism in India appears uncertain, but hope lies in the resilience of independent media outlets.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 25 Apr, 2024
Journalism in chains in Cameroon

Investigative journalists in Cameroon sometimes use treacherous means to navigate the numerous challenges that hamper the practice of their profession: the absence of the Freedom of Information Act, the criminalisation of press offenses, and the scare of the overly-broad anti-terrorism law.

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 12 Apr, 2024
The Perils of Journalism and the Rise of Citizen Media in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia's media landscape is grim, with low rankings for internet and press freedom across the region. While citizen journalism has risen to fill the gaps, journalists - both professional and citizen - face significant risks due to government crackdowns and the collusion between tech companies and authorities to enable censorship and surveillance.

AJR Contributor Published on: 6 Apr, 2024
Orientalism, Imperialism and The Western Coverage of Palestine

Western mainstream media biases and defence of the Israeli narrative are connected to orientalism, racism, and imperialism, serving the interests of Western ruling political and economic elites. However, it is being challenged by global movements aiming to shed light on the realities of the conflict and express solidarity with the Palestinian population.

Joseph Daher
Joseph Daher Published on: 1 Apr, 2024
Silenced Voices: The Battle for Free Expression Amid India’s Farmer’s Protest

The Indian government's use of legal mechanisms to suppress dissenting voices and news reports raises questions about transparency and freedom of expression. The challenges faced by independent media in India indicate a broader narrative of controlling the narrative and stifling dissenting voices.

Suvrat Arora
Suvrat Arora Published on: 17 Mar, 2024
Targeting Truth: Assault on Female Journalists in Gaza

For female journalists in Palestine, celebrating international women's rights this year must take a backseat, as they continue facing the harsh realities of conflict. March 8th will carry little celebration for them, as they grapple with the severe risks of violence, mass displacement, and the vulnerability of abandonment amidst an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Their focus remains on bearing witness to human suffering and sharing stories of resilience from the frontlines, despite the personal dangers involved in their work.

Fatima Bashir
Fatima Bashir Published on: 14 Mar, 2024
A Woman's Journey Reporting on Pakistan's Thrilling Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally

A Woman's Voice in the Desert: Navigating the Spotlight

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 8 Mar, 2024
Breaking Barriers: The Rise of Citizen Journalists in India's Fight for Media Inclusion

Grassroots journalists from marginalized communities in India, including Dalits and Muslims, are challenging mainstream media narratives and bringing attention to underreported issues through digital outlets like The Mooknayak.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 3 Mar, 2024
Silenced Voices and Digital Resilience: The Case of Quds Network

Unrecognized journalists in conflict zones face serious risks to their safety and lack of support. The Quds Network, a Palestinian media outlet, has been targeted and censored, but they continue to report on the ground in Gaza. Recognition and support for independent journalists are crucial.

Yousef Abu Watfe يوسف أبو وطفة
Yousef Abu Watfeh Published on: 21 Feb, 2024
Artificial Intelligence's Potentials and Challenges in the African Media Landscape

How has the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence impacted newsroom operations, job security and regulation in the African media landscape? And how are journalists in Africa adapting to these changes?

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 18 Feb, 2024
Media Blackout on Imran Khan and PTI: Analysing Pakistan's Election Press Restrictions

Implications and response to media censorship and the deliberate absence of coverage for the popular former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in the media during the 2024 elections in Pakistan.

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 14 Feb, 2024
Digital Battlegrounds: The New Broadcasting Bill and Independent Journalism in India

New legislation in India threatens the freedom of independent journalism. The draft Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023 grants the government extensive power to regulate and censor content, potentially suppressing news critical of government policies.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 11 Feb, 2024
Pegasus Spyware: A Grave Threat to Journalists in Southeast Asia

The widespread deployment of spyware such as Pegasus in Southeast Asia, used by governments to target opposition leaders, activists, and journalists, presents significant challenges in countering digital surveillance. This is due to its clandestine operations and the political intricacies involved. The situation underscores the urgent need for international cooperation and heightened public awareness to address these human rights infringements.

AJR Contributor Published on: 5 Feb, 2024
Cameroonian Media Martyrs: The Intersection of Journalism and Activism

Experts and journalists in Cameroon disagree on the relationship between journalism and activism: some say journalism is activism; others think they are worlds apart, while another category says a “very thin” line separate both

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 28 Jan, 2024
Silent Suffering: The Impact of Sexual Harassment on African Newsrooms

Sexual harassment within newsrooms and the broader journalistic ecosystem is affecting the quality and integrity of journalistic work, ultimately impacting the organisation’s integrity and revenue.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 23 Jan, 2024
In-Depth Analysis Reveals Distortion in U.S. Media's Coverage of the Gaza Conflict

A new quantitative analysis by The Intercept reveals the extent of distorted coverage in American media of the Israeli war on Gaza.

A picture of the Al Jazeera Media Institute's logo, on a white background.
Al Jazeera Journalism Review Published on: 14 Jan, 2024
In the Courtroom and Beyond: Covering South Africa's Historic Legal Case Against Israel at The Hague

As South Africa takes on Israel at the International Court of Justice, the role of journalists in covering this landmark case becomes more crucial than ever. Their insights and reporting bring the complexities of international law to a global audience.

Hala Ahed
Hala Ahed Published on: 12 Jan, 2024
‘We are not going to stop doing journalism’ - reporters defiant after raids on India’s NewsClick

This week’s raid on the offices and homes of NewsClick employees is the latest in a string of attacks on independent news outlets critical of the Indian government

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 6 Oct, 2023
The French banlieues and their troubled relationship with the media

Discriminatory media coverage of recent unrest in the suburbs of Paris shows that little has changed since the uprisings of 2005

AN
Ahmed Nazif Published on: 28 Sep, 2023
Why are Zimbabwe’s elections always surrounded by media controversy?

Election season in Zimbabwe has long been shrouded in controversy, with intimidation of opposition activists and journalists, combined with disorganisation at the ballots creating a perfect storm for chaos. This year was no different

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 25 Sep, 2023
Analysis: The media’s coverage of the Pakistan cable car incident

It was a roller coaster ride with news organisations all over the world giving minute-by-minute reports on the daring rescue. How does the media create suspense and is this sort of coverage useful?

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 21 Sep, 2023