Prince Edward County’s Newspaper of Record
May 18, 2024
16° Light Rainshower

Keep Calm and Carry On

I cannot get the idea of Princess Catherine, sitting in front of her computer one Friday evening, photoshopping an image of herself surrounded by her three children, out of my mind.

The photo was taken by her husband. Apparently, Catherine sat down to edit the photo on Friday evening about 9pm. And had another go the following morning.

And then she shared on Instagram, via “Kensington Palace,” her family account.

So far so good. A pretty normal Friday night for a mother of three. Getting photos ready to share on Instagram, looking forward to the friendly response.

Many moms I know will relate. I can relate.

I related until another social media post, this one on X (?!) and purporting to come from Catherine herself, aka “C,” apologized for editing the photo.

I confess, I only noticed Kensington Palace had released any photo at all when it was “recalled,” like contaminated lettuce, by reputable news agencies around the globe, because it had been edited.

Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France, Getty Images. All cancelled the photo. If it had been published, they said it should be pulled. If you hadn’t been paying much attention to the “Where is Catherine?” story before, you were now. A spectacular fail on the part of the Palace’s media relations team, that’s for sure. Or maybe by Catherine —“C” — herself.

We’ll never know.

Aren’t all photos edited? Not everyone uses photoshop, which is fiendishly difficult as well as expensive, but it’s pretty routine by now to edit out the blemishes, shift lighting and colour tones. Crop. All of that’s ok. News agencies draw the line at tampering with the pixels of an image. Which is pretty much all photoshop does.

In recalling the photo, news agencies won a major battle in the war with social media. The victor in this war is a matter of the utmost importance.

There’s a reason news agencies send in their own photographers to capture images. The whole point of a press conference is to invite members of the media to come see for themselves, take their own photos, and ensure they are handled responsibly, according to accepted journalistic practices. No tampering. Like conducting one’s own interviews and doing one’s own research, it’s a matter of integrity. 

When the palace issues a photo, it takes that power into its own hands. It prevents members of the press from verifying according to accepted practice. By offering a doctored photo for publication, in place of an actual photo opportunity, Kensington Palace abused the credibility and independence of the press. It flagrantly violated editorial standards for publishable images.

Instead, it handed to the press the kind of thing shared on social media.

And then it turned out this had happened over and over again. News agencies, alarmed by the cancelled photo, went back and found royal image after royal image had been doctored. Collusion? We’ll never know. But the game is be up, now. 

The news agencies, in recalling this photo, called out the palace. They re-asserted editorial integrity and independence, which rests on the standards it uses to decide which images are credible and which are not, no matter where they come from.

It is an important move. It re-establishes editorial standards as indispensable mediators of public discourse.

The doctored, manipulated, barely plausible, AI-generated photos that now haunt real life are part and parcel of social media. They are what it is. The fake Taylor Swift photos, for example, were designed to exploit a global social network that hasn’t a care in the world about authenticity.

On social media, photos are shared that were never meant to be shared in what is called revenge porn, a craven betrayal of vulnerability.

“Deepfakes,” circulated for entertainment, threaten the very basis of civil society: a shared reality founded in verifiable facts.

Through their social media accounts, “Kensington Palace” and “Sussex Royal,” members of the royal family thought they could bypass the traditional news agencies and create a more direct relationship with fans and followers.

They were trying to evade, at the very least, the rapacious tabloid culture of both the U.K. and the U.S.

The problem is that social media is now the new tabloid, only even worse. It should come with a warning, use at your own risk.

The indelible moment we will all remember from KateGate is the princess sitting on a bench outdoors in springtime, giving a candid interview about her recovery from surgery and cancer diagnosis. Clear. Straightforward. Done.

It was filmed by the BBC and broadcast round the world.

That short interview took me back. To the famous Martin Bashir/BBC interview with Princess Diana. Again, the calm in a storm, straightforward amidst swirling complexity, simple, transparent. Diana talking simply and openly about the difficulties of her marriage to the then Prince Charles — and his real partner, Camilla.

Why are the news media so important? Moments like these tell us why. 

I am not claiming the traditional news agencies are perfect. Far from it. Mr. Bashir used forged bank documents to coax the Princess of Wales to give that interview. An inquiry found him guilty of deceit and of breaching BBC editorial standards. 

What news agencies have that social media does not is a set of clear standards against which such conduct can be measured.

Their mission, to seek out facts and report them, clearly and impartially, without interest or prejudice, involves careful consideration. Judgments must be ordered by sometimes contradictory principles, each of which must be held in a balance, to set the guiding priorities of each case.

Exposing unethical practices. Citing only identifiable sources. Promoting free and informed debate. Protecting privacy. Avoiding conflicts of interest. Resisting attempts by both advertisers and special interest groups to influence what is reported and how. Being accountable by correcting mistakes and accepting criticism. These are all the standards of the profession. 

Do they seem old fashioned? Maybe. They have also never been so important.

This text is from the Volume 194 No. 14 edition of The Picton Gazette
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