In early August 2004, the following hoax news story reached FAIR:
|UNIVERSITY RESEARCHERS PUZZLED OVER ANCIENT KNIFE
FRESNO, Calif., July 19 /PRNewswire/ — Researchers at California State University, Fresno are puzzled over an ancient, man-made artifact discovered by forestry students on a recent field trip in the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains. The artifact in question is a steel knife that was apparently buried deep inside a Giant Sequoia tree and was found between growth rings in the tree indicating that it had been left there around 350-450 AD.
The tree in question is located in the Atwell Grove inside Sequoia National Park. The tree fell in February of this year after several years of erosion had weakened its root structure. National Park Service and CSU Fresno Department of Forestry officials estimate that the tree had lived over 2,000 years at the time it fell. The Park Service gave the university permission to dissect and study the tree, and students stumbled upon the knife while using a metal detector to measure mineral content. The CSU Forestry Department speculates that the knife was left between two trees that later grew together and buried it under centuries of further growth.
The knife was removed and taken to the CSU Fresno campus, where several experts from the Archeology and Anthropology Departments have examined it. All of the experts agree that the knife doesn’t match any other artifacts from indigenous peoples in that area. To date, there had been no evidence of Native Americans using steel tools and weapons at that time. The strangest aspect of the story, however, is that the knife does seem to match artifacts from about a thousand years earlier from the other side of the world. The knife looks like weapons that were common in the Middle East around 500 BC, and has faded engravings on the blade that appear to be Egyptian symbols. Researchers can’t find any meaning in the engravings, but say that the still visible symbols roughly correspond to the phonetic sounds of MO-RO. Ironically, one of Sequoia National Park’s most famous landmarks is a granite dome called Morro Rock. Since Morro Rock wasn’t named until the last 1800’s, however, the similarity is pure coincidence.
“It’s the damndest thing I’ve seen in my career,” said CSU Fresno Associate Professor of Archeology Curtis Johnson, Ph.D. “I’m sure we’ll find an explanation that makes sense sometime. I really don’t think anyone is going to believe that someone from the Old World wandered all the way to California a thousand years before Columbus.”
Here is how I determined that the story was a hoax. The first thing I noticed about this story was its origin. I came from PRNewswire. PRNewswire is paid by companies and organizations to send out press releases. So, from the very beginning a flag is raised about this story.
Next I checked out Associate Professor of Archeology Curtis Johnson, Ph.D., who give the rather odd unprofessional sounding quote “It’s the damndest thing I’ve seen in my career,” in the last paragraph of the story. First of all, if I (as a reporter) have a quote like that, I’m putting it up in the lead, not down at the bottom. More troubling is the fact that there is no Curtis Johnson, Ph.D., on the faculty at California State University, Fresno.
At this point I called the university and was informed that they have neither a department of archeology or forestry. In the first paragraph the story refers to “forestry students.” The press office of the university was, understandably, distressed over their name being used in this way and they contacted PRNewswire.
PRNewswire in turn said that they never sent any such story and that it does not have the required contact information at the end. PRNewswire takes very seriously any such use of their name and turned the whole matter over to their legal department for investigation.
At this point it is clear that the story is a hoax. Who produced it and what their motivations for doing so area mystery, however. (Similar hoaxes have been started by disgruntled ex-Mormons in an effort to prove how “gullible” LDS members are.)
So the basic steps are these:
- Check that any persons quoted do indeed exist and work where it is claimed.
- Check that basic facts check out. Do not assume that a college has a particular department or that a firm has an office even it story said it does.
- Call the institution or company. Do they know about the story?
- Call the people who are alleged to have sent out the story, PRNewswire in this case.
- Always remember that just because something on the Internet says it was issued by AP or another agency does not make it so. Anyone can buy a copy of the AP stylebook and in no time be writing fake stories. This is why the major news agencies (AP, UPI, Reuters and AFP) all maintain separate closed communications systems with their customers.
- If a story sounds “too good to be true,” it likely is.