Biased Spirit Rocks reporting misrepresents Comets

Rainier Pederson | Web Editor

“We are winning.” “Love them both.” “No peace on stolen land.” Chances are, you remember reading those words on the Spirit Rocks last semester. But the story of UTD’s infamous “rock wars” has been twisted to suit news outlets’ personal narratives, endangering the truth and our school’s reputation.

For many Comets, last fall was defined by the spray-paint was on the rocks sparked by the Israel-Hamas war, before Student Affairs suddenly removed the Spirit Rocks on Nov. 20. Hundreds of students and alumni expressed their disappointment with the decision and didn’t go unheard — while the university stays silent on the removal, several news organizations have reported on this story and amplified Comets’ anger. Not all coverage is created equal, however. While some publications have faithfully portrayed how Comets feel about the rocks’ removal, other outlets have inaccurately framed the removal of the rocks as being more two-sided and tense than it actually was. To uninformed readers, these half-truths paint a false picture of Comets’ actions and beliefs — something that will only change if students stand up for fair and accurate reporting.

Biased reporting like this is subtle but extremely insidious, as it weaves a false narrative through a series of nudges. Someone who was on campus during the situation can see through to the truth, but an uninformed reader might walk away with a completely mistaken impression. For instance, consider the Oct. 18 CBS article, written during the height of political painting on the Spirit Rocks. The article uses terminology like “tense,” “critical point” and “sparked outrage” and centers its discussion on the rock graffiti that read “Zionism = Nazism.” Since this is CBS’ only coverage of the rock wars, it amounts to misrepresentation. “Zionism = Nazism” was a short-lived message on the rocks and accompanied paintings that could similarly offend pro-Palestinian students, such as “We are winning” atop an Israeli flag. And while several students were upset by messages on the rocks, other students interviewed by The Mercury as well as President Benson’s own email to Comets described the back-and-forth as civil and polite. By failing to represent the full range of opinions on the rock wars, CBS implies that students almost universally disliked the paintings, and that the only important message painted was “Zionism = Nazism.”

All of what CBS reported is technically true, but if a reader only has this article to learn from, they will be left with an incomplete picture of events. The reporting is false by omission. They might think “Zionism = Nazism” stayed up for several days, or that the “students [who have] been camping out at the rocks to quickly paint over any messages with opposing views” were primarily defending “Zionism = Nazism.”

A more egregious example from the rock wars is Dallas Express’ coverage published on Oct. 18. It makes the same rhetorical choices as the CBS article, with more obvious anti-Palestinian bias. It first introduces that UTD’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine helped coordinate the painting and that “the student group condemned the school’s president, Richard Benson, for his statement against the “atrocities committed by the terrorist group Hamas.” Such phrasing implies SJP only condemned Benson’s letter because he disapproved of Hamas, even though their criticism was actually about Benson’s failure to acknowledge Palestinian deaths while explicitly offering support and condolences to Jewish individuals. This presentation suggests SJP — and their side of the rock wars — promoted a senseless, inflammatory argument that they were never truly making. The story didn’t accurately represent the pro-Palestinian students’ anger with Benson. And, tellingly, the Dallas Express article didn’t get quotes from a single pro-Palestinian source despite dedicating paragraphs to a local pro-Israel advocate.

By misrepresenting the situation, these news outlets give readers an inaccurate impression of what Comets truly believe. Dallas Express interviews no UTD affiliates and paints SJP as holding a fringe, incomprehensible belief. How would a reader know that SJP made an argument loved by hundreds on campus? Or that their events attract huge crowds and that many Comets thought the rock wars were overall peaceful and respectful? CBS centers “Zionism = Nazism” as the crux of the rock wars, ignoring the fact that much of the back-and-forth didn’t feature such inflammatory language.

The most offensive of all the previous months’ reporting is CBS’ article discussing the Spirit Rocks’ removal. The article frames the issue as an equal duality starting from the title, saying that students express “relief, concerns” over the removal, with no other context provided. The article implies there are just as many students “relieved” as there are students “concerned.” This is blatantly false. The Mercury’s own poll showed that 92% of over 1,500 respondents opposed the rocks’ removal, and the 75 senators in Student Government passed a resolution unanimously demanding the rocks be reinstated. There is no 50/50 split in the way the article implies.

Clearly, large news outlets have misrepresented Comets’ perspectives on the removal as well as their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is incredibly bad journalistic practice to cherry-pick which quotes and facts you use in an article, precisely because it creates false narratives that can leave a casual reader misinformed. To see this juvenile reporting from a publication as big as CBS is horribly disheartening. Their reach is massive. How many hundreds of viewers have seen that article and misunderstood UTD’s school culture because of it? How many people have misunderstood you, what you stand for, and the school you attend because of it?

Is that something you’re willing to let continue?

Skewed reporting like this is unacceptable when there is truth and our school’s reputation on the line. I implore you to join me in emailing CBS to demand they revise the article on the Spirit Rocks removal. They need to add in The Mercury’s poll results as well as make clear that the removal wasn’t controversial, but rather that students almost universally agree it was bad.

Ideological conflicts will always thrive on campus. But if we don’t demand accurate reporting today, deceitful journalists will tell even more lies about us tomorrow.

  • Thank you for standing up for the truth. In America, media is the “vehicle for free speech” — or so it should be; it has turned into a “vehicle for the opinions of a few”. Don’t let those losers win. Keep doing what you’re doing.

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