Media Internships: Are We Being Exploited? Part 2

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Another issue which seemed to primarily affect students who stayed on longer than their internship originally intended (primarily in the hope of gaining paid employment) often resulted in the difficulty in managing a paid after-class job, a university degree and of course, the internship itself. “I work part-time hours,” says one student (No: 4, 2008) “as well as doing full-time uni so that one day per week I was interning soon became difficult to commit to. As much as I enjoyed interning, unfortunately as it wasn’t paid I couldn’t justify staying on longer than the agreed 12-weeks.” Another who had already graduated from university found great difficulty in managing two jobs and an internship. “I am very tired most of the time.  It can be exhausting: often I rush home from work, write my column or an article, go to a concert, and get up an hour before I usually would to write my review before starting work again at 7am! I take my internship seriously, and am as committed to my writing deadlines as I am to deadlines for financial reports and so on at work.” (No: 6, 2008) According to Tom Peter’s article, ‘glamour industries’ such as television, publishing, and politics are notorious for offering unpaid or low-paying internships. In an article for, Sonia Smith used the 2005 edition of the Princeton Review “Internship Bible” to calculate that 62 percent of television internships, 52 percent of magazine internships, and 54 percent of political and public-policy internships were unpaid. (2007: online) While this paper has emphasized the importance of gaining not only a journalism habitus but cultural capital as well, this issue uncovers the struggle of an economic capital – another of Bourdieu’s social theories – for students when starting out. And sometimes this can mean disadvantaging people who can’t afford to work for free, or as Bourdieu may see it, as someone with low economic capital who therefore cannot gain cultural capital.

Moving away from Bourdieu, the debate between those who believed journalism should be regarded as a profession and those who adhered to an equally proud tradition of trades, as evident from the empirical data, still affects students today. Frank Murphy, who became chief of staff at the Melbourne Herald in the 1930s, came from an Irish Catholic background, was the son of a butcher who, so the story goes, ran away from school and was employed as a copy boy; those who did begin their careers this was from the bottom up often retained a strong sense of the trade (Hamilton, 1997: 97). Friedson examines the two concepts of professionalism that he suggests is intrinsically bound by a particular period of history. The European concept of professionalism meant that status and security were gained through attendance at an institution while the Anglo-American concept argued that it was instead gained through marketplace learning i.e. on the job (1994:19). When reflecting on Friedson’s theory of professionalism one can see why these students felt that their host employer would “…assume you don’t know a lot and don’t give you great opportunities.” (No: 8, 2008) Though its practice has a long history, journalism is in one sense a modern profession. Because of the lack of control over vital aspects of the work and the absence of a tertiary education tradition, journalism has never achieved the occupational status in Australia that is shared by the more traditional professions –lawyers, doctors, the architects…therefore, there can sometimes be a sense of opposition to allowing tertiary educated students to jump in the deep end.  However, from anecdotal responses, the opposite effect can occur as well where students have been given more important roles on the news desk based on their education.

The most common issue based on the data was that media organizations “…hire too many interns so there is a very small chance of getting a job later.” (No: 6, 2008) Although nearly all students interviewed saw their host employer as merely a stepping stone to finding future employment elsewhere, a study conducted by Roger Patching revealed “there is one journalism job for every three or four graduates from the various vocation-based courses.” (1996: 62) And while many of the journalism lecturers interviewed during the author’s fieldwork say they are always at pains to ensure students do not have unrealistic expectations of their job prospects, almost all believed they would be one of the lucky ones. (1996: 54) However, Harris disagrees with Patching’s theory, arguing that it’s “the excuse of the exploiters, but it’s hard when people will beg to work for nothing. It undervalues the profession.” (2008) One student stated that being one of six interns at a small publication meant they were ultimately saving the paper from employing another person who would otherwise be paid for the work they did. (No: 6, 2008) A 2001 ABS Labour Force Survey showed that no journalists are employed between the ages of 15 and 19, compared with 7.3 per cent of all other occupations (Doran, 2003). Harris agrees with the anecdotal assumption that this common overuse of internships or ‘free labour’ is closely related to budget cuts within the media. (Lateline, 2003: online) So while internships can be a path to a career into the media, it can sometimes be a roadblock because many entry-level positions are seemingly being replaced by unpaid internships (Scratch, 2004: online).

While the issues an intern might be faced with have now been identified, what of the employers? What if it really is a babysitter job? Or maybe some employers have had bad experiences with previous interns to cause them to be less accommodating? Besides, not everyone will be suited to the position; it is up to the intern to prove they can do it and show potential, right? Kerry Green (2005: 185) revealed in a study of journalism education that newspaper editors urged educators to forget theory and ideology and concentrate on skill development ‘along the lines of what we need.’ (Green, 2005: 186) “Each year, the same plaintive cry arises – there are too many journalism graduates of too low quality chasing too few jobs.” (Green, 2005: 186) Though one of the ironies of that situation Green goes on to say, is that metropolitan dailies who say they do not employ journalism graduates do in fact employ them but “they employ them 18-months to two years after graduation, from country newspapers, usually at higher gradings than if they had taken them straight from university and given them two years’ training.” (Green, 2005: 187) However the struggle between what should and should not be incorporated into the university curriculum still continues: “Should I sacrifice my Communication Foundations in favour of an extra unit on interviewing…” (Green 2005: 189) So, perhaps a much closer collaboration between employer and educator might solve many of these issues even as early as the internship process – well before employment?

Having established the key issues, how do we resolve these concerns for learning on the job? It would be easy to say that with the instalment of rules and regulations set down by a unified body e.g. MEAA or Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, all issues of exploiting free labour would dissipate. However with the absence of a compulsory register for journalists like there are doctors and lawyers, it would be difficult to regulate. Though integrating the internship as class credit might help to not only alleviate the problem of juggling a paid job, university and internship but outline specific needs and goals of the student whilst on the job. By having the internship as apart of the university course, students would be required to carry out specific tasks based on their course outline including assessments and certain criteria to meet e.g. reflecting on their own published work would mean having to be given the opportunity to write an article for the publication. Furthermore, Richard Harris strongly suggests joining the MEAA journalist union in order to be protected from any possible concerns that might arise while on the job and in the future.

Before journalism training was located in universities, the path from classroom to press conference was pretty straightforward. Enthusiastic school leavers vied for a place on the lowest rung of a newspaper hierarchy as copyboys and less often, copygirls, and made their way through the menial chores of reportage until the talented or lucky got that break. But now, it’s not so clear; journalists today emerge from years of study, fluent in their understanding of cultural theory and the nature of media as a discourse, able to locate the significance of a good yarn in its political, social and cultural context and are seemingly more equipped at entering into the workforce, expecting more from their initial intern experience on the news desk. (The Media Report 2001: online). Of course, in every industry beginners have to pay their dues, however, working for free and answering phones for two months may go beyond the call of duty (Hamilton, 1998: online). Based on the empirical data, the question of whether or not interns are being exploited depends entirely on each individual organization, though it is clear that a close partnership needs to develop between employer and educator in order to ensure students and employers are getting more out of each other and ensuring the success of each future journalism graduate.

Bibliography and References

Bordieu, P. & Wacquant, L. 1992, ‘An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology’ The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 94 – 115.

Bordieu, P. 1997, ‘Habitus: A Cultural Theory of Action’ in Culture and Power: the Sociology of Pierre Bordieu, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 95 – 115

Doran, 2003 Behind The News thing

Freedman, M. 2008 ‘Once upon a time, there was a banana’ Retrieved 30/4/08 from:

Freidson, Eliot, 1994: Professionalism reborn: theory, prophecy and policy, Polity, c.1 ‘The Theory of Professions: State of the Art’

Gillis, A. (1997) ‘Intern At Your Own Risk,’ Ryerson Review of Journalism, Retrieved 30/4/08 from:

Green, K. (2005) ‘Journalism education: towards a better understanding,’ Australian Journalism Review, v.27, no.1, July 2005: 185-194

Hamilton, A. 1998 ‘Internships’ Langara Journalism Review, Retrieved 30/4/08 from:

Hamilton, P. (1997) ‘Journalists, gender and workplace culture 1900 – 1940,’ in Curthoys, A. and Schultz (eds) J. Journalism Print, Politics and Pop Culture, St Lucia, Qld, University of Queensland Press, 1999

Harris, R. (2008) interview obtained 15/5/2008

Lateline (2003) ‘ABC Announces Budget Cuts’ Retrieved 28/4/08 from:

Media Internship Questionnaire (2008) carried out 11 to 30/4/08 with ten students from University of Technology, Sydney; Bathurst University and Wollongong University.

Nash, C. (2007) ‘Lecture 4 – A Sociology of the Professions – Pierre Bourdieu,’ Retrieved 30/4/08 from:;=

O’Donnell, P. 2006, ‘Journalism students and intergenerational change in journalism.’ Australian Journalism Review, vol. 28, pp. 23 – 42.

O’Donnell, P. 1999, ‘The other 66 per cent? Rethinking the labour market for journalism graduates,’ Australian Journalism Review, vol. 21.

Patching, R. (1996) ‘900 Into 300 Won’t Go: Are Australia’s Journalism Courses Producing Too Many Graduates?’ Australian Journalism Review, vol. 18 (1), pp. 53-65

Peter, T. (2007) ‘Unpaid Interns Struggle To Make Ends Meet’, The Christian Science Monitor, March 05, 2007 Ed.

Scratch, E. 2004 ‘Internships: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ Ryerson Review of Journalism, Retrieved 4/5/08 from:

Takeuchi Cullen, L. (2006) ‘The New World Of Internships’, Time Magazine, September 2006

The Media Report (2001) ‘Journalism Education; British election’ Retrieved 28/5/08 from:

Wikipedia (2008) ‘Cultural Capital,’ Retrieved 30/4/08 from:


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