In this episode of DME Intern Podcast, we have our special guest Latesha Thornhill. Latesha is a researcher and fact-checker at the DME internship. Latesha is from a military family and learned the importance of critical thinking and ethical, accurate storytelling from her father who was a Navy veteran. Majoring in Philosophy, Political Science and East Asian Studies led Latesha to join the research/fact-check team with the Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS) VA internship.
Her job as a fact-checker entails reading stories and reports from other departments and going line by line, making sure that everything is accurate in the veteran’s story before it gets published to the public. She then makes suggestions to the writers to correct typos, misspelling or wrong information that writing interns are able to correct.
Latesha emphasized the importance of “accurate information” in journalism and her internship. If you are curious about interning at the VSFS program but are hesitant about joining, Latisha advises, “If you care about getting truth out there and you care about telling accurate good stories then you are the perfect fit.” A virtual internship sounds intimidating, but Latesha says that this internship creates useful experiences that apply to many other professions that you will encounter after college. Use the audio player to listen to Latesha’s full interview, or read the transcript below:
Ep 21: Grace Yang – DME Interns
Shannon Moran: The Department of Veterans Affairs does not endorse or officially sanction any entities that may be discussed in this podcast, nor any media products or services they may provide.
Hello and welcome to the intern podcast here with the Department of Digital Media Engagement. My name is Shannon Moran, and I am an intern and Executive Team Leader here with DME. I help run multiple podcasts within our platform, and host this one as well. We work really hard to make sure that you, the listener, get to learn more about what we do here within our DME program, tour fellow interns, and hopefully you can learn more about the other departments that we have within our program, and maybe compel you to apply if you are not an intern with us. That being said, I hope you enjoy!
Mercedes Hesselroth: Hi Latesha! Can you begin by introducing yourself and your role with the internship?
Latesha Thornhill: Yes! My name is Latesha Thornhill. I am one of the researchers, and also a fact checker. What we do is that when we get stories we make sure all of the information is correct. That’s what I do with the internship.
MH: Can you talk about what drew you to the VSFS Veterans Affairs internship specifically, and why you decided to be a researcher?
LT: Yes! My father — he passed away this year — but he was a Navy veteran. He always used to tell me stories about his time in the service. I just thought it was very very interesting. All the places he had been, all the people he had met. It was something that always stuck with him. He kind of passed that down to the rest of us, all my siblings and I. So we learned so much about being in the service even though we never were. I love just making sure things are correct. I’m also a philosophy major, and one huge aspect of philosophy is making sure that you work within ethical means. When you tell a story, you want to tell somebody’s full story, and you want to tell that story accurately. I know I would want somebody to tell my dad’s story accurately, so I wanted to be a fact checker.
MH: I’m so glad to hear that this internship is one way that you can stay connected to your dad and the veteran experience. Would you mind sharing one of the stories that he used to tell you?
LT: Sure! So he told me some stories about being on a ship. I believe he called it the USS Ticonderoga. I’m not positive about that because I haven’t been able to fact check it myself. However, he told me that one time they had a, it was sort of like a, I’m not sure what happened to the boat but something happened to it and they actually started sinking. He just remembers having to be evacuated from that. My dad was pretty young when he was in the service, he was around 17 or 18. I think that was a pretty scary experience for him, but it was also a learning experience for him. He knew that he would be ok, that everything would be alright even though the ship was sinking and it was a scary experience for him. He also talked a lot about going to China. He remembers going and being able to see over the great wall. The would have been around the time that the cultural revolution was happening, or the Great Leap Forward. I always thought that was really interesting. I am also an East Asian Studies major, and the stories he told me about China and Japan are really interesting. It was just such a different culture for him to experience.
MH: I can definitely see the connection between your family history and your choice of academics, and your role in this internship. Can you talk about what a typical research project that you would do for this internship looks like from beginning to end?
LT: The first thing that you would do is find a story that someone has written, we have fantastic writing interns. Then as a fact checker, you want to go line by line making sure that where the veteran was born, where the veteran… if they’ve passed on… where their resting place is, the names of their family members, names of the medals they obtained, the names of the kinds of ships or kinds of aircraft that they used. You want to make sure that everything is correct because we are telling veteran’s stories. So that’s what a fact checker does. After we fact check, editors also look at our work. Then the writer takes in all the consideration, makes any adjustments. Sometimes we look at that information one more time, then the information goes out to the public.
MH: So what would you say is the kind of team communication that you have with the writing team? Since it sounds like you are working so closely on all these projects.
LT: So I am getting to know a lot of great writers. I am a new intern, and there’s a lot of new interns coming in. Our relationship is that… you know it’s a give and take relationship. Someone writes it and they care about the veteran too. So we really care about telling these stories. It’s a great relationship where someone has written a story about this person and we just make sure that story is the story that they really want to tell to the best of their abilities. That relationship is really good.
MH: Can you talk a little bit about the research and fact checking that you do, and journalism?
LT: Yes! So, again, I would point to ethics. Journalism is something that requires a huge ethical component. When you’re writing a story you just want to make sure that story is correct and put out accurate information. So I think it has a huge connection to journalism. All of the great journalists and all of the great places you read good stories – you want to feel like those people are telling you the truth. You want to feel like those people have done, to the best of their ability, made checks and balances, so that when you read that and share it with someone else you know that information is accurate. Also, we’re telling stories about real people. We want to make sure that information is accurate to represent them, their families, their friends, and anybody who reads it. I believe that journalism is about making sure that we tell stories most accurately. Creative writing is fantastic, but creative fiction is fiction. Journalism is supposed to be only accurate information.
MH: Keeping in mind that the readers of these veteran’s stories are coming from so many different backgrounds: how do you keep that in mind when you offer advice on the research and fact checking?
LT: I think that’s a really great question. When I’m fact checking I just want to make sure that the information is accurate. We don’t try to embellish anything and we don’t try to take away anything. We just want to say, if someone lived in a certain town, that’s just accurate information. They lived in that town. If someone was in a certain unit or a certain branch of service, that’s just accurate information. We are not trying to tell a creative nonfiction story, we just want to tell the truth.
MH: When you’re crafting those stories together with the writing team, if there were to be a fact that you discovered that was incorrect or needed to be changed, how do you communicate that?
LT: So we just make suggestions and we tell that person where that information may be just a bit off. Our writers are fantastic, so they are trying to get those stories correct from the start. Everyone makes a typo, everyone overlooks a fact, and that’s ok. That’s why the fact checkers are there. We are just gently nudging. “Hey I see you made this mistake here, you may want to correct that.” Or maybe someone’s name is misspelled. Or maybe the place that veteran was, maybe they got the name of that location incorrect. We just make the suggestion. And the writers are always very receptive and very thankful. They always make that correction in their edits. They are fantastic for feedback, so it’s a great relationship that we have.
MH: What would you say is the relationship between the role of a researcher and fact checker? How does it compare to the role of a writer and editor?
LT: Yes. So I think we are sort of second editors. I think editors specifically are looking for grammar mistakes, the flow of the story, does this make sense logically to put these things in this order. Fact checkers are not really doing that. We can help in some way, but we really make sure that each component of the facts is correct. So editors will say “Maybe this component, maybe this timeline of events, could be framed in a certain way.” We don’t do that. We just say that if someone was born in a certain city or if they live with a family member, that information is correct.
MH: So Latesha, I notice that you are a triple major. How are you balancing this internship with your classes and all your other responsibilities.
LT: I will not lie, it’s a little difficult. But that is okay. I really feel compelled… I am a nontraditional student so I am a little bit older than a lot of people who go to college. For me, I went to college with the idea of working very very very hard to make sure that I met my goals. As I got into college, I actually only went with one major: Political Science. As I got into college my East Asian Studies major was suggested by a teacher. I just fell in love with philosophy in a way that I hadn’t expected. It’s a little bit of a struggle but it’s worth it. Then this internship is just a great component. I feel like it’s almost an extension of my majors. Political science, obviously while the veteran’s may not be political themselves, things like Congress and our political system, the choices they make affect the veterans. Obviously I feel very strong about the ethical component, the philosophical thing. Then I also learned a lot from my East Asian Studies major. I’ve been able to use those lessons for this internship as well.
MH: Since this internship is completely online, how does that compare to past jobs and internship experiences that you’ve had?
LT: It’s really different because I did work for quite a while in person at an organization locally that’s a nonprofit. So it’s very different. I think going to school and also doing this internship online is a new experience. I also think that the way we work may be changing because of this pandemic. It’s good having experience both in person and online. Then I’ll be able to say to any employers “I can do either, I can do both.” I think that’s a really good aspect of this internship.
MH: What would you say to someone who is curious about the VSFS, isn’t sure if they’re qualified to be a research intern… is thinking about it but might have some hesitations?
LT: Right. I would say if you care about getting the truth out there and you care about getting accurate, good stories, then you are a perfect fit. Don’t even worry about it. I will say this. The leadership through this internship is AWESOME. These are wonderful, supportive people, and you cannot go wrong being connected to them. I was a little nervous. I wasn’t sure how this would work, especially being virtual. Everyone is so supportive. Everyone just comes by if you make a mistake and they gently say “Hey this is how you want to do it next time.” So I would tell people to go ahead and try it. I really think this is a fantastic experience and everyone is so nice and kind that I just think you can’t go wrong aligning yourself with this internship.
MH: Could you talk a bit more about the leadership structure and chain of command of the internship?
LT: Yeah! So I’m still learning it. What I understand is that there’s a main person who is the person who everyone else is under. Then I have two direct people above me who are very fantastic and help me. I’m still learning that structure so I can only say that right now, but everyone has been very helpful and I’m hoping that I will be able to name everyone in a couple of weeks as I continue to learn this internship.
MH: So when you’re working on a research project are you the only researcher or fact checker, or are you part of a team all working on the same thing?
LT: It really depends. Sometimes it’s a team of people. Sometimes you are the only fact checker. We are trying to work as a team right now. We really want more than one set of eyes on a project because what I notice and what you notice might be different. Again, like I said, we want to tell the most accurate story. So we really are trying to have a lot of eyes on the information because we just want everything to be the most accurate story possible.
MH: So when you’re researching and fact checking, what are the resources that you’re referring to?
LT: Yes. So sometimes the veteran actually has some articles written about them, which is fantastic. Sometimes they are public figures so we can find information that’s easily able to be viewed that way. Also sometimes family members are wonderfully submitting information about the veterans. Writers are sometimes interviewing with those family members. We also have some links to resources that are connected to veterans specifically that we use. I believe the library of congress is a big one and then there’s another database that’s really popular for us to double check and research through.
MH: So how, if at all, do all the skills and information gathering that you have to do on this internship play into the future profession that you want to have once you do finish school?
LT: Yes. So I want to be an international journalist. I think that this has been really great for me because journalism is extremely big on ethics but also because I am going to hopefully be in a field where I am not part of the native culture, it is not my native culture, I hope this is helping me realize that it is a good idea to double check information. It’s a good idea to interview family members or friends of the person who I may be talking about. It’s really a great lesson in that. It’s also just really good for me to get practice researching. Researching is something that you do a little bit in college, but sometimes you don’t really do it to the fact that you’re literally looking line by line at all the information. We are literally looking at things line by line to make sure that every bit of information is correct, and I feel like that’s a skill I will be able to take with me into my career.
MH: What kind of perspective do you think this experience as a researcher or fact checker will help you in ways that a journalist who has only ever been a journalist or writer won’t have?
LT: For one thing, I think that I will never be upset about somebody making suggestions when I may have overlooked something. This always comes from a good place, and fact checkers want the story to be accurate. We want writers to write their best story. So if someone were to come to me — an editor or a fact checker — and say “Hey this needs to change” I would never get defensive about it or take it personal. Also I think that it will make me look at the facts just a little bit closer. For me to just double check my own work before I submit that I have the names correct, where people have lived, the name of a book or the name of an author. I think that’ll be something that I double check a little more closely.
MH: Looking at the year ahead, is there a personal goal, or an internship goal, that you would like to have accomplished?
LT: I am still in the process of setting that goal. I have thought about this. Where would I like to be in May when this ends? First of all, May is when I graduate. So I have some collegiate goals that align with this internship. So I’m still setting those goals and trying to figure out… Do I want a certain number of stories that I have fact checked? Do I want a certain number of connections? Do I want to talk to a certain number of people about the internship because I would love for friends I have in college to decide to pick up this internship in the future. I would just like to think a little bit more about it, but I do plan on having some hard concrete goals in the next two to three weeks.
MH: And to start one takes time and you don’t always come up with those things right away. You mentioned some friends that you might be referring to the internship. What would you say is the profile of the ideal research/fact checker intern?
LT: Yeah, I would say someone who is willing to learn. I think that with any internship you have to be willing to learn. Here you are working with people who you aren’t going to see so you need to be able to learn in a way that a lot of us are learning how to do right now through Zoom and Google Meet, but it’s still a skill that you have to work on. I would also tell anyone who is interested, especially a friend, to just be patient the first couple of weeks. A lot of times we as humans don’t want to make mistakes but it’s ok because in that process you’re going to get really good at your internship. Also I would tell any friends to be willing to learn about people you don’t know. So I’m learning about a lot of people’s lives, and it’s almost like a snapshot of other people’s lives. Sometimes it’s a really great snapshot, and sometimes it’s a little bit of a sad snapshot. I’m always sad when I’m reading a story about a veteran who may have died in the process of defending the country. But I think that it’s just very interesting to see these snapshots of people’s lives and learn more. Also I believe the leadership really encourages us to learn more about things that I wouldn’t think of. There were these stories that some people in the leadership said “Hey look some more into this.” I thought that was a good idea so I would tell friends to just be willing to learn.
MH: So what have you learned so far in the internship? Even though you’ve only been here really just a couple weeks or months.
LT: I have really learned a little bit about myself. One thing that you do as an intern is you make your own schedule. Sometimes that’s fantastic and sometimes that requires a little bit of discipline. For me I am the kind of person who needs to make sure I am having that discipline. For some people it’s amazing they automatically have that discipline. But I am working on that and so I love the fact that I can make my own hours. But it also causes me to make sure that I am meeting the goals of the internship. It’s a little bit easier when you’re working in person and have a set schedule, and it’s a little bit harder when you make that schedule yourself. You know, even at school, when a paper is due that is a hard deadline. However, due to this internship, you have to set those goals. That’s something that I am learning to do and I really like it. It’s causing me to look at “What is my schedule like? When am I doing the work? What kind of work am I doing? How can I maximize the time that I have?” and also letting me know how much effort it will be to be a journalist. I’ve written things before but I have never professionally done a lot of writing. I think this is a good preview for making sure that I am getting all that information correct and able to pass that on to others in a timely fashion.
MH: So keeping within that theme of time management, what advice would you give interns or potential interns who are still learning and developing that self discipline
LT: Sure. I would say first sit down with your schedule. I bought a planner for the first time this year. With things online I had to make sure I would meet those schedule needs. So whatever tools you need to use, sit down and look at your schedule. Be really realistic with yourself. Do you really have 3 hours on Wednesday or do you have 2. Do you have 5 hours on Sunday, or do you really have 3. Set realistic goals, and then sit down and do the work. Sometimes when you are doing something alone virtually, it’s kind of lonely. Maybe you need to work for an hour and then take a small break and then come back to do more work. That’s ok. Also make sure that you’re timing it. Set a time of, ok I will work from 4-6 today. Then be hard about that goal. When 6:00 comes, I will not work past that but I will work from 4-6. So we’re just saying, look at your schedule honestly, set realistic goals, and also really do the work.
MH: So looking ahead, once this internship is over what do you think your future engagement with the veteran community will be?
LT: That’s a really good question! I really feel like I need to be more active. I am learning so many people’s stories. I have, we have a thing locally where every Friday veterans go to a certain spot. People drive by and they honk their horns and show their support. I think that’s fantastic and maybe something that I should be supporting a little more. Also, maybe interviewing local veterans a little more. I kind of wish I had gotten my dad’s information on tape. That would have been very very interesting to have especially as a family member. I think that is something that would be wonderful as a journalist, and hopefully as an aspiring journalist, that is something that I can do directly. So it might be something I am looking into.
MH: You mentioned earlier that some of the researching and fact checking that you are doing is from self submitted information by families of these veterans. How do you check on that?
LT: We really believe that family members are doing their best to give the most accurate information. So obviously some of the stuff, like where people grew up or maybe where they lived part of their life we take that at face value because they knew those people specifically. But we do check things like medals and branches of the service that they were in just to make sure that information is correct. But with family members they really want to give accurate information. Obviously there’s some pieces of that that we do take at face value, but we do with it what we can.
MH: What would you say is the timeline from when you are first given a research project all the way until completion?
LT: It really varies because we are fact checking. Sometimes that information is readily available. I believe one of the people who was recently done right before I came on the internship was President [George] H W Bush. Obviously there’s a lot of information out there about him so it’s easy to fact check that information immediately and get that information quickly. It may be someone who we don’t have as much information about. In that case it may take us a little bit longer to find that information. It really varies. You can go from an evening fact checking to something that takes several days. It depends on how much information you have and how much digging it will take to fact check that information.
MH: Do you typically focus on one project at a time or are you doing multiple?
LT: So sometimes we sign up for multiples, but we really want to focus on something until completion. For me I want to focus on one thing. There are some people who can multitask on something in a way that I can’t. I can’t speak for them. But for me, I have signed up for multiple stories but I want to make sure that I am focusing on one story. I do try to sign up and work on one person’s story at a time unless I am told by someone that the order needs to be reversed but that hasn’t happened yet. At this moment I specifically try to look at one person’s story and complete it before moving on to the next person’s story.
MH: Thank you so much for talking to me today, Latesha! Is there anything that we haven’t discussed so far that you would like to mention, or that you would like to say?
LT: No! Thank you for having this interview.
MH: Yeah, of course. Thanks for talking today!
LT: Thank you! You have a good evening.
MH: You too.
SM: Thank you for tuning in to the DME intern podcast. We hope you learned something about your fellow interns, more about our program, and that you come back and listen to us soon. Have a great rest of your day!