Professor Gibson
Discerning the Digital Dilemma

Discerning the Digital Dilemma: Photoshop and the Princess

Hello, Content Creators,

Welcome to the first in my Discerning the Digital Dilemma series. If you missed my ethical framework blog, jump back and get caught up; we will wait for you.

This series will focus on a digital dilemma and walk it through my Gradient Scale for Digital Ethics. Today’s dilemma is the Kate Middleton Photoshop fail, which started my inquiry into the subject, so I am excited to dive in. Professor mode — activated!

The Dilemma

By now, I am sure you have seen the Mother’s Day photo that Kate Middleton released on March 10. That simple post is now one of the most scrutinized photos on the planet. To understand the dilemma, we must roll back the clock and look at the timeline.

Observers last saw Kate Middleton on Christmas day, 2023, as she left a church service in London. While there are reports of an event that took place on December 28, at this time, those reports are unverified, so let’s skip to the next known event. On January 17, 2024, Kensington Palace announces the Princess is recovering from “planned abdominal surgery.” She expects to be in the hospital for 10-14 days. Furthermore, they state that she will not return to public duties until after the end of March. There are reports that William visits Kate in the hospital the next day.

On January 29, Kensington Palace released a statement indicating that she is recovering and will return to Windsor Castle. A month later, facing speculation about her health, a spokesperson once again laid out their position in a statement: “Kensington Palace made it clear in January the timelines of the Princess’ recovery, and we’d only be providing significant updates.”

In addition to the speculation, TMZ claimed to have captured the first photo of Kate with her mother. Honestly, it looks more like her sister, Pippa, to me. On March 5, her name disappeared from the attendees list for the Trooping the Colour event scheduled for June 8. All of this preceded the photo’s release on March 10. The Prince and Princess of Wales’ official X and Instagram accounts released the image in question on March 10.

The car photo was taken in early March.

The Mother’s Day post in question.

The Response

The public reacted to this photo both quickly and swiftly. By that evening, AP Press issued a kill notice for the photo, indicating heavy manipulation as the cause. Reuters also pulled the photo for similar reasons. AP explained in a statement, ‘While there was no suggestion the image was fake, we pulled the photograph from circulation because it did not meet our photo standards.”

The story immediately made national headlines, which led Kate to apologize on March 11. But speculation, concern, and ridicule had already done damage. People issued genuine concern for her wellbeing. Her scandal remains a hot topic when looking at Google trends for March 11-18th. If you compare the terms “Kate Middleton” (in blue) and “Taylor Swift” (in red), the two have continued to maintain a neck-and-neck interest regarding search terms within the United States.

Not only did the public feel betrayed, but the media fanned the flames by dissecting every aspect of the photo. Many news outlets and gossip magazines rushed to analyze the image and highlight every inconsistency. Scrutiny continued beyond the royal’s Mother’s Day photo. News outlets have continued to examine past royal photos, highlighting irregularities.

The Gradient

This dilemma comes down to photoshopping a family photo versus using a photo as proof that you are alive and doing well. Do we, or can we, expect everything put out by a family or institution to be an accurate portrayal of reality? Let’s examine the Gradient Scale and break down a few precedents to answer this question.

The scale has three primary considerations the content creator must acknowledge.

  1. Be aware of the “deal” your content makes with the audience.
  2.  The audience’s understanding and sophistication can/will change over time.
  3.  Elements of visual and non-visual storytelling occasionally convey unstated messages to the audience.

Be aware of the “deal” your content makes with the audience.

A “deal” simply represents a nonverbal agreement between the content creator and the audience. These agreements can be blatant due to an organization’s reputation. For instance, National Geographic, a premiere nature magazine, publishes photos from all over the world and highlights regions of the earth that most of us will never see for ourselves. The public expects these photos to be accurate. This is why the 2019 scandal over Beth Moon’s altered night sky is shocking to the audience. If publishers presented these photos as art, audiences would more widely accept their manipulation. But, just by virtue of its name and reputation, National Geographic has made a deal with the audience as a reliable source for factual accuracy in portraying the world through photos.

1982 National Geographic cover.

This isn’t the only time National Geographic and/or its photographers have come under fire for altering an image. In 2016, Steve McCurry renounced his role as a photojournalist and started calling himself a “visual storyteller” to distance himself from the ethical standards of photojournalists. In 1982, when an image of the pyramids in Giza taken by Gordon Gahan graced the magazine’s front cover, Gahan was surprised to see the magazine altered the image. National Geographic claimed it did not falsify the image but “merely established a new point of view.” Before you get upset, Gahan paid men to ride camels back and forth so he could capture the perfect shot. And these are just a handful of examples in a legacy of issues. Yet, the average audience still considers National Geographic’s deal intact, even after the company tried to move away from the agreement. However, deals are less about what the content creator intends and more about what the audience perceives.

On the other hand, these agreements can also be an unintended consequence of a particular situation or status. This is where I believe this dilemma falls. The royal family, by virtue of their status, has a unique deal with the public. Unlike you or me, the line between their private family lives and public image is thin. Add on the unique situation surrounding concern over Kate Middleton’s whereabouts, and you have a perfect storm for an ethical disaster.

It is not uncommon for family photographers to photoshop a child’s head onto a picture taken during the same session at the same place. Any parent will tell you it is tough to get several children to smile and look at the camera simultaneously. When you send out your annual Christmas photo, you want to put your best foot forward and portray a happy family. This expectation for a “doctored” reality extends to social media. Unfortunately, celebrities in the public eye feel this pressure more intensely than the rest of us.

There are strict rules against this blatant manipulation for photojournalists. People need to be able to trust that images depicting war or crucial current events are accurate and true. However, family photographers have more leeway in crafting a moment based on reality. Sometimes, this moment is alluded to by virtue of the signals used, such as using a halo to show a loved one who has passed. Other times, it is considered art and capturing a moment for a grieving family.


Headswaps for the win! I do this almost for every family session with toddlers!

♬ original sound – W̶E̶L̶C̶O̶M̶E̶ T̶O̶ O̶H̶I̶O̶

“Thank you SO MUCH!!! I could not even respond to this earlier because my breath was taken away. I am so excited for this special gift and I could not thank you enough!!! This is just so beautiful and special!!😭❤️❤️❤️” #customillustrations #griefandloss #griefsupport #lovedonesinheaven #weddingtok💍

♬ nhạc nền – Mix Your Life – Fantastic Trend

So, if photoshopping a loved one into a family photo or combining children from different images taken in the same session is considered acceptable, why is Kate Middleton getting pushback for a photo in which she manufactured a family moment? I struggled with this when I first heard the news. What is the difference between the two?

I’ve landed on two main determining factors. First, Kate Middleton is not just a mom messing around with Photoshop. She is a public figure and part of a family institution. This is a unique position and one we do not have a comparison for in the United States. Second, she has not been seen in months and, as the palace states, is recovering from abdominal surgery. This photo is more than a mom with her kids wishing everyone a happy Mother’s Day. It is an indication of her health and wellbeing. And that, for me, is the tipping point in this dilemma.

The audience’s understanding and sophistication can/will change over time.

Regarding the audience’s current sophistication, most people understand Photoshop exists, and images are often manipulated to portray a polished, curated reality. This is the Instagram life many young people are currently rejecting: the idea that we must always portray perfection in who we are and what we do. Life is much more messy than we allow to be seen online. The Prince and Princess’s work in the mental health field may lead many audience members to expect a less polished version of reality. However, as we’ve covered, they are not merely a family of celebrities but also part of an institution. We are entering a time when our expectations may lessen, but given the causes they champion and who they are, many followers may wish to see a less-touched version of the royal family.

In today’s world, where we see a lot of edited pictures and information online, it’s becoming increasingly important for everyone to understand what’s real and what’s not. This skill is called digital literacy. It’s like reading and understanding the language of the internet and technology. As more tools become available to alter pictures and videos, it’s up to us to learn how to tell the difference between what’s true and what’s been changed.

So, what is the public’s role and responsibility in maintaining their digital literacy? If we live in a contemporary digital society, is there an expectation that the public would not only understand but seek out information regarding digital manipulation? As these tools become increasingly sophisticated, audiences’ ability to critically engage with and discern the authenticity of digital content is critical. However, this would involve exploring the educational and societal measures needed to enhance digital literacy, thereby empowering individuals to navigate the complexities of the digital landscape with a critical eye.

Elements of visual and non-visual storytelling occasionally convey unstated messages to the audience.

In this situation, there is a crucial non-visual element that conveys an unstated message: the photo caption. Three aspects of this caption indicate that this is a “current” photo:

  1. She thanks supporters for their well wishes over the past two months. By directly addressing the concern over her health, the image is positioned as a “proof of health” factual accuracy over an artistic vision with a manufactured moment in time.
  2. The photo icon followed by “The Prince of Wales” indicates that photo credit for the image belongs to Prince William. This alone lowers the expectation of heavy manipulation of the image.
  3. The date of 2024 indicates that the image is current and thus proves her healing is well underway.

Let’s play with the caption for a moment; what if she wrote, “Thank you for your kind wishes and continued support over the last two months. I love this photo of my family. Wishing everyone a Happy Mother’s Day. C.” Does image manipulation now become ethical? Potentially. The new caption does not indicate this is a new or current photo. Furthermore, it doesn’t imply the photo deserves credit to one person alone. When during the editing process, does the credit no longer belong to the photographer alone but become a shared credit among the editor and photographer? In movies, we do more than credit the cinematographer; there is a long list of people who captured and manipulated the footage before you view it.

Another aspect of this photo conveys a message to the audience—the medium. This image was released on X and Instagram. While coming from an official account, this medium differs from a PR team releasing the image directly to the media or even on their website. It conveys a more informal message rather than a formal declaration. This aspect favors the Princess’ decision as it appears she never intended this to be an official royal release.

The Insight

So we’ve simplified this dilemma to photoshopping a family photo versus using a photo as proof that you are alive and doing well. We’ve walked through the Gradient Scale and examined precedents. So, let’s ask our question again. Do we, or can we, expect that everything a family or institution puts out is an accurate portal of reality?

I think the answer is that the audience wants to accept this situation based on the virtue of who Kate and William are and the current situation (health concerns) as proof that Kate Middleton is alive and doing well. Given that, this digital dilemma has received an outpouring of concern and controversy that it may not have at another time. You can alter the outcome in these situations by changing one small detail. If the caption indicated this was not a current photo, the controversy may not have risen to this degree.

The Kate Middleton Photoshop incident highlights the need for ethical guidelines. Content creators and public relations professionals must balance public expectation and digital presentation, particularly for figures involved in institutional legacy and public scrutiny. This particular dilemma underscores the nuanced presumptions placed upon the royal family and the broader implications for how digital content is consumed and interpreted in our contemporary digital era. The incident reminds us of the delicate balance between public figures’ responsibilities to maintain transparency and the audience’s responsibility to navigate digital realities.

This is a small example of the digital dilemmas facing society today. In the age of digital manipulation, these dilemmas challenge us to reflect our values. As we move further into a digital reality, we must hold content creators ethically responsible. The Gradient Scale is an ethical framework that allows flexibility and specificity in decision-making.

I hope you found this post helpful. Next week, I will look at the use of AI in Sports Illustrated, Vanderbilt, Grammarly, and Artifical Words. What digital dilemma should we tackle after that? Let me know.