“Fake news! Fake news!”

“Code Blue! Code Blue!”

An archaeologist student shouted out what sounded like a call to arms. Other students rushed into the square where she was digging, peering at what she had found. They were shouting “Code Blue!” and “Oh, my God!” and “This needs to go to Jerusalem!”

I rushed over, too, but I couldn’t see through the scrum. We were all on an archaeological dig in Huqoq, Israel, as part of a UNC study abroad program. I was co-leader of a team of 14 student journalists that was documenting the excavation of a fifth century synagogue that had already revealed several historic finds.

I was quickly joined by a few more reporters who all asked journalism’s first question when arriving on a news scene: “What’s going on?” And that was quickly followed by “What’s a Code Blue?”

The group of students and experts brought out what looked like a shoebox with “Code Blue” written on the top. One student handed it to another and it was passed to a supervisor. Meanwhile, the manager of the dig site backed his truck up to the edge of the dig, and the shoebox was placed in his truck bed. He roared off.

We didn’t know what they found, and it seemed as if they didn’t want us to know. One of the dig leaders shouted, “Guys! Guys! Don’t say anything about this to anyone!”

The leader of the dig, Jodi Magness, Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism, was across the way from the find and was walking toward the group. I asked her what it was.

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” she said, and she continued walking.

We had been on the site for a few days, and the people on the dig had occasionally found things. Mostly they were excavating mosaics on the floor of the synagogue. One of our journalism students, Will Melfi, had pitched in to experience the dig and he found a coin.

The students on the dig had been somewhat standoffish of our group. They were doing the dig; we were documenting their work. Many of them cooperated with us, but others didn’t. But we had 14 journalism students walking around the dig and interviewing the diggers. I figured we’d find out what they found in the Code Blue before long.

In an hour or so, Cailyn Derickson, one of the print journalists there, was on the other side of the dig talking with a digger. He told her the “Code Blue” was a prank aimed at us. We’d get excited by the find and our cameras and reporters would rush over. If that was the intent, it worked.

I found Jodi and asked if it was a prank. She smiled and said, “Yeah, yeah, it was.”

The merry pranksters weren’t aware of how important getting it right is to journalists. I’m not sure what they’d have thought if we had actually reported with seriousness that they’d found something of “Code Blue” magnitude, but wouldn’t reveal it. This is how “fake news” is created.

Later, Jessy Snouwaert said that she was embarrassed for falling for it.

“No, don’t be,” I said. “You did exactly what you were supposed to do. Rush to the scene and start reporting.”

As it turned out, journalism worked. We followed the story, and we found out it was a spoof.

 

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