I was working on a column about AI fakes, motivated by allegations that a former high school athletic director had ginned up a phony recording of his former principal saying terrible things.

Then somebody went and old-schooled me.

A man taking photos of students at a local school Tuesday afternoon was approached by staff members who asked who he was and what he was doing.

“Our afterschool staff shared that you were on campus taking photos of students this afternoon,” a school official wrote me and my boss Tuesday afternoon. “While I sincerely hope that was not the case, if it was, I would remind you that our campus is private property, and the students you took photos of [are] minors and would require parental consent to use their image. Please do not use any pictures of our students for whatever you are working on.”

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Being the crack journalist I am, my immediate response was to think, “What?”

I was in The Banner newsroom all day Tuesday. Slightly miffed that Editor-in-Chief Kimi Yoshino might think I was at best a journalist with a poorly defined set of professional boundaries and at worst some unpleasant variety of creep, I responded with a version of a “nope, not me” email.

Then my curiosity kicked in. Why, I asked, did your staff member think it was me?

“Very bizarre,” the school spokesperson wrote back. “Our staffer asked the person to identify themself and they said point blank I’m Rick Hutzell from The Baltimore Banner, clear as day.”

Over the next few days, she checked the security tape and talked to the staff member to see if the man was identifiable — and probably to make sure it really, really wasn’t me.

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OK. Let’s go to the tape.

There he is in the distance. His silver SUV pulls into the gravel parking spaces behind a wooden fence. He gets out, slips behind one of the stately trees that lines the campus and begins taking photos of students playing at the edge of a field during an after-school care program.

He’s too far away in the security footage to identify, but his body language is a clue that he’s using an actual camera and not a phone. He’s wearing a light blue, short-sleeve shirt, dark-colored shorts and white, knee-high socks.

“Maybe they were compression socks?” the school spokesperson offered when we talked on Thursday morning.

A man who identified himself as Rick Hutzell leans into his camera while taking photos of students at a private school in Annapolis. It wasn't me.
A man who identified himself as Rick Hutzell leans into his camera while taking photos of students at a private school in Annapolis. It wasn't me. (Courtesy photo)

Confronted by staff members and some of the kids, this is when the man reportedly claimed to be me before ambling back to his silver SUV. He makes a K-turn on the narrow road and heads off.

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What the heck was this?

The school spokesperson doesn’t know. But she has a theory.

I haven’t mentioned the name of this school for a reason. It doesn’t deserve a black eye over this. But it is occasionally in the news.

Sometimes, when some news organization is working on a story about the school and needs a scene-setting photo, a reporter or photographer comes to the property’s edge and takes a photo of the campus. Maybe this was someone like that, but the man got overzealous and grabbed pictures of some kids, too.

As unethical as that is — and it is unethical — I hope that’s what it was. The alternative, that it was someone taking photos of kids for unknown personal use, is unnerving.

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High praise should go here to the well-trained school staff, who confronted this impostor as soon as they noticed him. He was lurking and left quickly because they spotted him. They also shared the video with me, something they didn’t have to do.

School officials decided not to notify the police but are working on updating their security plan. Other than trespassing, which might have been dismissed as a misunderstanding, no serious crime was committed. The video shows the SUV, but the license plate is too far to identify.

But what about me?

A journalist trades on their credibility, and I’ve been building mine for four decades. When I’m wrong, I correct myself. I don’t take myself too seriously. I try never to use my job for personal benefit.

While I was the editor of the local newspaper in Annapolis, we occasionally got calls from theater groups who said someone was identifying themselves as our drama critic and getting in free.

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We didn’t have a drama critic.

Lots of people right now are playing at journalism. Take a look at TikTok, where the rise of the faux news anchor is real. People with no journalism experience and no affiliation with any news organization run news clips or photos pirated somewhere and explain — sometimes incorrectly — what’s happening.

There’s no license or legal requirement to be a journalist; you can just start doing the work.

But, when you fake being a reporter for a news organization, you might find yourself in court.

Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal used trademark infringement to sue a New York woman named Rita Villadiego for allegedly pretending to be a reporter for them named Contessa Bourbon. They argued she was diluting their brand by using it for her purposes.

AI fakes created with advancing digital technology are increasingly common. There are tells still, such as problems with the hair or fingers in an image or awkward syntax in language. Right now, smart journalists and tech experts use various tools to spot a faux photo, or maybe one reused out of context. I don’t know how long that will be true.

How do you spot a fake journalist?

First, always ask for ID. I carry an ID, my phone with newsroom contacts and a notebook whenever I’m working. Even when I’m not, I usually have business cards in my wallet.

Any reputable news source provides its reporters with tools to prove they are who they say. If you have doubts, ask to speak with an editor or other newsroom representative.

I say who I am and that I’m working on a column or story whenever I open a conversation with someone via phone, text or email. I sometimes tell people I’m a journalist outside of work, just to get over that awkward moment when they realize I tend to remember what people say. I don’t hide behind trees and sneak photos hoping no one will notice.

When I told my colleagues about this bizarre episode, they were shocked. If this person continues to use my name, it could be a problem.

It’s not the worst thing that’s happened to me as a journalist, not by a long shot. My car was bugged in what I assume was an attempt at blackmail. A man with a shotgun murdered five of my colleagues in the 2018 Capital Gazette newsroom shooting. I was at the top of his death list.

Why did this impostor choose my name? Why not just identify himself truthfully?

I can only assume he knows my work and is irritated with me. After decades covering Annapolis, I get recognized. A Transportation Security Administration officer in another state once looked at my ID as I went through airport security, touched his chest and said, “Capital Gazette.” I still weep when I think about it.

So, if you are reading this, fake Rick Hutzell, here I am.

Why did you invoke my name as a talisman? What were you doing?

Unlike you, I’m an honest journalist. I’m clear about who I am and what I’m up to.

And, right now, I’m looking for you.

A man who identified himself as me drives away from a private school in Annapolis. His car appeared to be a silver SUV.
A man who identified himself as me drives away from a private school in Annapolis. His car appeared to be a silver SUV. (Courtesy photo)

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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