Media Internships: Are We Being Exploited?

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By JT

There is an anecdotal understanding that as an intern you’re expected and willing to be exploited by your host employer. Those were the days, as columnist Mia Freedman recalls in her online blog (2008: online), when starting at the very bottom and working your way up was the accepted path to respect and training as a professional journalist. However, a seemingly much savvier J-student is now emerging from years of university study, expecting and confident at performing tasks in journalism from day one of their internship rather than answer phones and collect the staff coffee orders. Now that journalism is becoming more of an industry profession with a degree in media and communications as the basis of acquiring a reporting career, therefore evolving from the traditional concept of journalism as a trade, should today’s journalism students be so brash as to excuse themselves from the so-called ‘boring’ or ‘irrelevant’ tasks a potential employer might ask of them during their internship or do they have every right to expect more?

With the challenge of some host employers assuming a babysitter role and the importance of learning valuable skills, techniques and experience during an internship, a questionnaire was handed out to current student interns in order to find out about issues in today’s internship programs, covering all aspects of the process from obtaining the internship to expectations of the job. Secondary to the questionnaire, similar responses were collected from the UTS Online Work Experience and Internships Feedback Forum. Each student response was numbered from one to ten for confidentiality. From the responses it was discovered that students were:

Happy with experience                         60%

Felt unappreciated                                    50%

Felt they could do more                        40%

Did irrelevant tasks at times                        30%

Would do an internship again                        80%

Felt a valued staff member                        70%

Did relevant tasks at times                        90%

50 percent of students were interning at a commercial publication, 40 percent at independent publications, ten percent in television and none in radio giving only an introductory view of internship experiences and expectations. Based on the empirical data, five main issues of internships arose. Those were the amount of interns at one organization at any one time, the preconceived notions by the host employer, the type of work given, the host employer’s accountability and the difficulties in managing an internship with other responsibilities such as a paid coffee-shop job and classes.

Just like a medical student refining their crucial surgery techniques, an emerging journalist needs to perfect their reportage skills as well as build a strong network of contacts in order to move up the industry ladder. While universities are providing most of these objectives, just like the medical student, there are still important practical elements that can only be obtained while on the job, which is where the internship is crucial. Described by Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance NSW branch secretary Richard Harris as a “short-term unpaid role under supervision (2008)” the fundamental purpose of a media internship, based on the empirical data, is to provide students with the finishing touches of vital industry experience and training before seeking full time employment. Because of this, the humble internship has ultimately become a pre-requisite to employment and is often carried out while the student is still at university as an extra curricular activity.

People aren’t born journalists much the same way that people aren’t born lawyers or doctors – they acquire those skills – but it’s important for a journalist to know their stuff (Nash, 2007), which is why Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of habitus is an important reflection on the passage of becoming a fully-fledged journalist. Habitus is `socially learned predispositions` (1997: 100) with three key terms in that definition that Chris Nash points out:

“They are social in that they are acquired as part of one’s being in the world – like you are acquiring skills as journalists or lawyers or public relations people or whatever by learning in the world from other people, from a body of knowledge that exists socially. They are learned because you acquire them in a whole range of complex ways – in your instance, through an educational process, also through experience in the world, work experience when you actually get employed, etc.” (Nash, 2007)

“They are social in that they are acquired as part of one’s being in the world – like you are acquiring skills as journalists or lawyers or public relations people or whatever by learning in the world from other people, from a body of knowledge that exists socially. They are learned because you acquire them in a whole range of complex ways – in your instance, through an educational process, also through experience in the world, work experience when you actually get employed, etc.” (Nash, 2007)

What is understood by the third term of predispositions as Nash continues later in his lecture is that there’s a certain ‘natural’ behaviour a journalist will take on. For example, journalists ask questions more so in social situations than say, lawyers who would most likely argue a point without giving their personal point of view because that is their nature, their habitus (Nash, 2007). Eight students from the questionnaire commented that primarily due to their university training felt they were confident in producing the same type and amount of work as paid staff and felt that their value in the office and direction received from host supervisors was not evident. “A lot of my time is spent re-writing press releases. I feel I am capable of undertaking my own research and write my own stories,” (No: 5, 2008) “I was told to ‘surf the net,’ take three-hour lunch breaks, do filing and sort mail, which is all well and good but it did not expose me to any aspects of the media which could have been useful.” (No: 4, 2008) This issue is easily applied to Bourdieu’s theory of habitus, as their skills, knowledge and ‘predisposition’ could not improve. The lack of direction from staff also undermines their development of important newsroom skills, for example, improving their ‘news tone’ for that particular publication or advice on writing a crime story. Bourdieu implies that the embodied state of cultural capital (one of three types of cultural capital) is both the inherited and acquired properties of one’s self (2008) where journalism as a profession is handed down through time, culture and tradition; rookies need to shadow their predecessors in order to carry on the art of journalism but shape it to their needs based on a wealth of experience over time. Cultural capital is a fundamental element for any journalist as it is the knowledge, experience and connections one has had through the course of their life and enables them to succeed more so than someone from a less experienced background. (2008) For journalists – much like any profession – they must change over to a certain style of writing, thinking and seeing the world as well as encountering new and interesting situations that everyday people may not be capable of dealing with. This behaviour can sometimes be instinctive but it can also be developed through experience in the field, which is the case for any aspiring journalist. One student (No: 7, 2008) commented about benefiting from seeking the advice of senior reporters for a story he was given while on an internship. “You learn so much more about the finer points of putting a story together and what makes a story interesting. They (the senior reporters) also have a stack of good contacts and can give you tips on how to get people to talk to you who otherwise wouldn’t.”

Central to the question posed in this paper about whether or not exploitation of free labour through internships is still an issue or that journalism students are simply expecting more from their experience, Bourdieu’s theory of habitus also looks at a model of subjective hopes and objective chances – what is aspired to and what is expected (1997). A systematic distinction between aspirations and expectations could easily be applied to journalism internships. Based on the empirical research, journalism students have both expectations of the job as well as aspirations of a career as a journalist; they aspire to become Walkley Award winners, foreign correspondents, political reporters – the ambitions are endless. But first, students must pick up their tools and learn how to use them correctly, and in doing so, they have many expectations in acquiring these tools; students expect to learn these valuable skills both on the job and at university. Though it is important to highlight another expectation that this paper does not include, as Mia Freedman explains, where some students expect “…to interview Jessica Alba and attend fashion shows; that’s the kind of experience she was after, thanks.” (2008: online) Habitus also implies that individuals attend to the present and anticipate the future in terms of previous experience. (Bourdieu, 1997: 112) One student (No: 6, 2008) reflected on applying one of the theoretical frameworks studied at university – in this case media law – to practical experience whilst interning at a small local paper. The student interviewed and published responses from a boy under 18, which is unlawful unless a parent or guardian had granted permission, and experienced the consequences of an upset mother. Fortunately, there was legal action by the mother and no disciplinary action at the newspaper as there might otherwise have been had the student been a paid, trained employee. “In fact, the editor was quite apologetic but I learned a lesson to take into my professional life.” It is clear even from this example that when looking more closely at the importance of internships the purpose of them is to “…allow rookie reporters to increase their journalistic skills otherwise they aren’t all that helpful.” (Hamilton, 1998: online) Or if we look at it from a theoretical perspective, the lack of a platform to develop ‘cultural unconscious’ or ‘habit-forming forces’ as Bourdieu discusses, will result in a poor if not, complete absence of habitus thus resulting in a useless reporter.

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