The ethics of image editing: How should the media/ad industry respond?


They say a picture can paint a thousand words, but we are all increasingly aware of the damaging effects image editing can have on society, not least the young.

Clearly, this relentless pursuit of ‘perfection’ has become an obsession that the media, marketing and advertising industries need to address.

With new legislation now making its way through Parliament, Rob Sewell, CEO of image-streaming service SmartFrame Technologies, explains why the Digitally Altered Body Image Bill, on its own may not be enough to tackle the issues it aims to resolve and how technology may be able to help ensure image transparency… 

Rob Sewell, CEO, SmartFrame Technologies

Over a third of the UK population experiences body image dissatisfaction – a condition that is related to a variety of mental health issues such as body dysmorphic disorder, depression, and eating disorders. 

This recent and unprecedented increase in negative body image has been linked to pervasive unrealistic beauty standards, as well as the proliferation of digitally altered images in advertising and on social media.

At present, the Body Image Bill – which follows in the footsteps of legislation introduced in Norway and France to increase transparency around image editing – is in its second reading. 

However, concerns around the efficacy of such a law, as well as the complexities of image retouching and framing, leave many questions about tackling the issue in practice unanswered.

Where laws fall short

In a 2019 study by the Mental Health Foundation, 21% of adults blamed advertising for body image issues while 40% of teenagers cited social media. 

In response to these concerning findings, a report from the Health and Social Care Committee has highlighted the need for swift government intervention, including more research on the impact of digitally altered images, teaching critical image appraisal skills, and implementing a system for labelling commercial images with a logo to identify those where “any part of the body, including its proportions and skin tone, is digitally altered”.

Image ethics: Commercial photography needs a labelling system for altered images.

The law covers any edited photo with “significant, far-reaching influence” and/or “commercial intent” where either publishers, advertisers, or broadcasters would stand to make money. 

But questions remain. Will the legislation only tackle images produced, and companies or media outlets situated, within the United Kingdom? Considering the international nature of the media industry, how would the law apply to agencies, publishers, and advertisers around the world?

Furthermore, while the law does not target wedding photo embellishments, for example, it is unclear where to draw the line. 

In the case of influencer sponsorships, where would the responsibility lie, for example, if an image includes a gifted brand product but is not strictly advertising? How could labelling be guaranteed, especially with increasingly sophisticated editing techniques? And what happens when a photo is copied, cropped, and shared on other websites, without the consent of either the image owner or the model?

The problem lies not in the idea, but rather in its application. What the industry needs is an overhaul of the entire ecosystem, because the issue, at its heart, revolves around honesty and transparency.

The complexities of image retouching

Another significant challenge concerns the definition of a retouched image.

While superficially simple, the question is actually rather complex; while most would agree that editing a photo using particular software or airbrushing counts as “retouching”, not all of these practices are damaging. 

Touching up: Does all photo editing need to carry a transparency logo?

Furthermore, not all of them are obvious.

Both casual social media users and professional photographers will tweak their photos with varying degrees of sophistication, with or without specific editing tools. 

Many manipulate their images before they are even taken, using photo setups to get their desired result. 

Lighting, angles, and even equipment all contribute to making subjects appear a certain way, traditionally to achieve the most flattering look. 

When it comes to portraiture, using a lens with a moderately long focal length and a wide aperture creates a shallow depth-of-field, often considered the most complimentary.

There are articles dedicated to explaining how certain poses can make you ‘look skinnier’ in photos, and since these practices can considerably alter the appearance of the photo’s subject, it can be argued these techniques are just as damaging as digital retouching. 

Indeed, this kind of posing is so successful and ubiquitous that YouTube videos and channels have appeared devoted to deconstructing the myth of physical perfectionism influencers and celebrities cultivate online.

Injecting transparency into the media ecosystem

Since it might be too complicated to know when to label an image, let alone how to enforce the practice, there are other ways to ensure complete transparency within the industry. 

The Content Authenticity Initiative (CAI) is currently developing technology that combines certain pieces of in-camera information at the time of an image’s capture – including the time, date, location, and the image’s author – with all subsequent edits made to that image, before appending this to the file in a publicly visible and tamperproof way.

CAI standard: The Content Authenticity Initiative is looking at technology solutions for image transparency.

Image streaming – which uses a similar concept to YouTube’s streaming of video content to improve image use across digital media – is another technology that can both be easily incorporated into the supply chain and puts transparency first. 

Image owners can insert captions and metadata – and soon, CAI data – into their images, which cannot be edited or deleted by anyone else. 

What’s more, image streaming disables any drag-and-drop or right-click functions, stopping images from being altered after publishing, or copied and circulated without consent.

The future of image publishing

We live in a world where images are constantly produced and shared without much knowledge as to their origin or creator, and where evolving technologies have made it easier for anyone to edit photos – whether or not they belong to them. 

These images are ubiquitous, and, as we have seen, can have a negative impact on people’s own body image and sense of self-worth.

However, before implementing a blanket law, the industry and legislators must consider how far this can go towards fixing these issues in the digital media. 

Cultural and social actions around critical image appraisal and unhealthy beauty standards aside, we need to deal with the root issue that lies at the heart of the media industry: image transparency. 

Fortunately, this is a challenge that new technologies can help solve.