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Committee To Protect Journalists Outlines Media's Role In Debunking Fake News

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Here are a few of the headlines we saw during the heated presidential campaign - "FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide," "Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump For President," "Trump Goes Full Nazi: Muslims In U.S. Should Wear ID Badges." And another one from just a couple of days ago - "Final Election 2016 Numbers: Trump Won Both Popular And Electoral College Votes."

None of those things ever happened, but they are part of the alternative reality portrayed on fake news sites with names that sound real enough like the Denver Guardian and 70 News. And these stories pop up in Google News searches and Facebook feeds as if they were real news.

That worries both current and former leaders of legitimate news outlets. And we're joined by one of them - Sandra Mims Rowe, who is chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists and also former editor of The Oregonian. Welcome to the program.

SANDRA MIMS ROWE: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: We hear appeals to social media companies to try to keep fake news off of their sites, claims that they have a responsibility. Do people who edit and produce mainstream legitimate news outlets - do they have some special obligation here when it comes to coping with fake news?

MIMS ROWE: Yes. It might be a different obligation than the CEO of Facebook has, but yes, I think that most news sites are recognizing that they can no longer have one person say one thing and one person say something diametrically opposed without sorting out what is the real fact. And when it comes to fake news, I think we have a somewhat more limited responsibility than the CEOs of this company, but we do have a responsibility.

SIEGEL: When we become aware that some phony story enjoys some credence with some part of the public because it's been disseminated online, maybe more so than we thought a few years ago we might have to get on the stick and acknowledge that and debunk it in our own news organizations.

MIMS ROWE: Absolutely, and if you take it away from the political realm, it's even easier to see why this is important. If you had, for instance, a food scare and it was a hoax, no news outlet would hesitate to try to get to the facts and report that to their community. And I think we have to apply that standard to anything that affects public life, whether it's food safety or whether it's politics.

SIEGEL: By the way, do the fake news sites in your view actually pose a threat to legitimate news sources?

MIMS ROWE: I do think they pose an additional threat because there is so much bad information, and then on that continuum, then you have news that is just completely made up. What we have seen at the Committee to Protect Journalists in other countries is that governments have used fake news to rouse people to certain actions, and that's what individuals are doing here. Add to that the tendency to seek out news that only affirms their own thoughts, and I think those two tendencies lead to some very bad results for a democracy.

SIEGEL: Sandra Mims Rowe, chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists, also former editor of The Oregonian, thanks a lot for talking with us today.

MIMS ROWE: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.