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The Women Debunking Fake News

In the age of Donald Trump, what is it really like to spend a summer determine what is actually “fake news”? Katie Akin shares how she got her internship writing for Politifact, what it was like to move to *gasp* Florida, how she sees it fitting into her dreams of writing breaking news, and how she goes about answering the questions essential to protecting our democracy: “Are there giant man-eating rats in NYC?”

Name: Katie Akin

Job Title: Intern at PolitiFact

Location: St. Petersburg, Florida

College: University of Chicago

Year: Fourth-year

Major: English and Political Science

What are you doing this summer?

I’m helping PolitiFact debunk fake news stories and political lies. I get assigned different claims, which have been everything from “Did Donald Trump and Justice Kennedy launder money together?” to “Are there giant man-eating rats in NYC?” Then I research and report until I can conclusively say if it’s true or false, and I write an article about it.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I want to be a reporter. Right now, I’m most interested in audio journalism–I took a course on podcasts last spring, and I’m a freak for NPR. But really I’d be happy any place where I can get out into the world and find the story.

How did you get your internship?

Handshake, UChicago’s job board, is my Goddess. I’ve managed to get internships on Handshake the past three years in a row. This is specifically through the Institute of Politics, which I have never been involved with. Thanks David Axelrod!

What do you wish you had known during your internship search?

My search was pretty chill this year–I just applied for every journalism job and eventually got an interview for this one. I wish I had known that Florida was actually a cool place, to be honest! My biggest fear in accepting PolitiFact’s offer was that I would be stuck in some retiree community, but I’m right by the beach and in a pretty hip town. It’s the ideal summer destination, so I wish I hadn’t been so worried about that.

This is right across the street from work! Katie eats lunch by this lake sometimes.

What does a day in the life look like?

So I live in a commune, and my days start there. It’s basically a single-family house that’s been converted to house guests. A couple of other interns live there too, so it’s not exclusively weird drifters, although they are also a presence. My room is a tiny, converted porch known as “Antarctica” (all of the rooms are named after continents). One wall is bright yellow, and the other three are white, with bright blue snow-flake patterns painted on. Above my bed is painted a watchful spirit: a blue polar bear. It’s a weird place to live, but it’s charming and cheap, so who am I to complain.

The Poynter Institute, which is the nonprofit that supports PolitiFact, is only about a mile away, so I grab some breakfast and head on in. Poynter is this gorgeous building with huge windows, but we (the PolitiFact team) work in the “Newsroom,” which is a conference room with all the tables pushed together. It’s a little dingy, but it’s social and a good place to work. PolitiFact is split into a DC office and a Florida office, and the team in Florida is almost entirely women, which is absolutely iconic.

This is the malicious spirit that haunts Katie’s room.

Honestly my day isn’t very interesting on paper: I just take whatever claim I’m assigned, and I do some rigorous Googling until I know more about it. As needed, I’ll email experts and make calls. Yesterday I called the Sheriff’s office to see if they had arrested anyone for bestiality with alligators (good news: they hadn’t). Journalism, I think, is really just about being willing to bother people.

People around here go out to lunch a lot, which is very pleasant from a social point of view, but not very pleasant in terms of my budget. This week, though, Poynter has been hosting a conference with catered lunch every day, so I’ve gotten very adept at smuggling out a lunch (and oftentimes a dinner) for free! Frugal!

After lunch is a lot of the same: research, write, email, etc. I turn in my article to an editor, who rips it apart and lovingly sews it back together again. It’s nice to be on the other side of editing, though. I’ve been an editor at the Maroon, UChicago’s newspaper, since my first year, so it’s refreshing to be the destroy-ee rather than the destroyer. I think my writing has improved, so that’s good.

And then after work I just head back to the commune, go on a run if it’s not Crazy Hot, fix dinner, call friends, watch Netflix, etc etc etc.

How has this job changed what you see yourself doing in the future?

I’ve crept closer and closer to a real “newsroom” job with each internship I’ve had. First I was in marketing, and then I wrote for the alumni magazine, and then finally I’m here, doing political reporting but a few days delayed. I still really want to be the one writing the breaking news, rather than the one fact-checking it afterwards.

A candid of the Politifact Florida team during a Skype meeting.

That being said, I love my internship, and it’s given me a lot of hope for my post-grad life. Many of my coworkers are recently graduated and they seem to be thriving here, with nice apartments and reasonable work schedules and fun weekend plans. I’ve always figured that journalism would be a rough career and that I would spend years living in some dingy shack with a dozen roommates and working 80-hour weeks. I’m sure it’s different for every publication and every job, but it’s heartening to know that people are making it here, at least.

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