A story in the New York Times reveals that the rise of unpaid internships may be illegal: employers may be violating the federal guidelines which determine whether a position can be paid or unpaid. But beyond the legal problems of unpaid work, what are the social and political ramifications of these internships in journalism, a profession that, at its best, should be reporting and analyzing social inequalities, not perpetuating them?
According to a memorandum by the Economic Policy Institute, "In 1992, only 9% of graduating college students had participated in internships; by 2006 that figure increased nine-fold to 83%." As internships have become more common and acceptable in recent years, employers have started to take on unpaid interns in unprecedented numbers. Internships, as they are defined by law, should more closely resemble an apprenticeship system, wherein interns would gain valuable industry knowledge and experience while their tasks still remained distinct from those of an entry level employee. In fact, one of the defining traits of an internship under the federal guidelines is that "the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees." That's because the "training is for the benefit of the trainees."
Today, the vast majority of newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations, and news websites offer internships, and perhaps they do so to allow students and recent college graduates to gain experience in journalism, but these internships most definitely also fill personnel gaps in organizations ravaged by a ruthless economy and failing business models. The news organizations are using unpaid internships to replace entry level positions--interns are conducting research, checking facts, and editing copy in newsrooms throughout the country--with the result that there is no longer any "entry" unless you can work without compensation. As one student interviewed by the Times said, "internships have become the gateway into the white-collar work force."
The consequence of this gateway is quickly becoming clear. In the U.K., a government report released last year found journalism to be one of the three most exclusive professions after doctor and lawyer, and that journalism has suffered one of the sharpest decreases in social mobility across all professions. I wouldn't be surprised if the numbers were very similar in the U.S., especially since the report also found that unpaid internships are a big part of the media career path in the U.K. as well. Commenting on this report on the blog of Youngstown University's Center for Working Class Studies, Alyssa Lenhoff and Tim Francisco adroitly summed up the implications of the increasing homogeneity of the profession: "fewer opportunities for working-class students to enter the profession equals fewer journalists attuned to the complex issues facing the working class and fewer stories about the issues facing working-class people." U.S. journalism as a profession is already far from representative of the nation it covers, and if the only way for the journalists of tomorrow to enter the field is to work for free, this media disenfranchisement will only get worse.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, user Daniel R. Blume.