Ann Althouse has an excellent take on how the right images can tug on heartstrings and emotionalize and simplify for news consumers what should be an area for dispassionate, objective inquiry.
In a February 4 post to her blog, she writes:
Here's my question. How many people look at that picture and think the polar bears were living on some ice and it melted around them and now they are stuck?
And, yes, I realize a polar bear can drown... if, say, it's exhausted and swimming over 50 miles. But basically, these things can swim 15 miles easily, at a speed of 6 miles an hour, and they use the edge of an ice floe as a platform from which to hunt. Where's the photograph of the bear chomping down on a cute baby seal?
And, no, I'm not denying that there's global warming, even as I sit here a double pane of glass away from minus 12° air. I'm just amused at human behavior, such as the way it is possible to feel arguments at us. In particular, we are susceptible to argument by animal. We love the animal, if it's pictured right, in a way that pulls our heartstrings.
Althouse is definitely on to something. In January 2006 I wrote about how population changes in a species of frog were being blamed on global warming, even though there are other more immediate causes that just as easily explain why the buggers were croaking.
And of course for some media outlets, including ABC, this tactic is a two-way street. In June 2006, we at the MRC's Business & Media Institute tracked how the network was begging viewers to submit what they considered eyewitness evidence of the impact of global warming.