Unpaid internships: A moral dilemma for journalism students and the media community

by Zoe Melnyk


Journalism students across Ontario are struggling with the moral dilemma of participating in unpaid internships while trying to build experience for their portfolios.

Journalism students are being taught that simply having a degree isn’t enough to get a job anymore. Students are being pushed into doing internships and the majority of the time these internships are unpaid.

Many students have accepted the idea that paid work must be earned and that unpaid internships are just part of the career. Jessica Vomiero, Ryerson University journalism student, believes in the use of unpaid internships up until the point of graduation.

“We all have to be willing to do a little bit of free work in order to build our portfolios,” says Vomiero.

Ryerson University journalism student, Salmaan Farooqui, also believes that unpaid internships are necessary in order to give students the opportunity to gain experience for their resumes. Although, he says, “right now, a lot of internships are literally the job,” meaning that journalism students are performing the duties of a paid employee, yet students are still expected to take the job without pay in the beginning stages of their career.

“It’s more about proving yourself,” says Farooqui.

The idea that journalists should earn the privilege of being paid is not uncommon amongst students. Many believe that it is a step that everyone must take in order to build a successful career.

In reality, unpaid internships are often illegal. Under the Employment Standards Act there are only three very specific occasions in which an internship does not require payment according to the Canadian Intern Association’s website.

The first scenario for a legal unpaid internship is if the internship is incorporated within a program at a secondary school, college, or university. These internships often lead to the student receiving a credit, allowing the student to still receive some benefit from their work.

The second type of legal unpaid internship is if the internship provides training for certain professions such as architecture or law.

Finally, an unpaid internship is legal if it meets the six conditions required for the intern to be considered a “trainee.” These six conditions, as can be seen in the Act, require that the individual receives the majority of the benefit from the training while being fully advised that there will be no compensation for that training.

Ontario’s Ministry of Labour has recently been cracking down on these unpaid internships that they deem to be exploiting students’ work. Internships with popular media outlets such as Toronto Life and The Walrus have been shut down within the past year, causing mixed emotions amongst students. It was a step in the right direction in order to end exploitative employment practices, but many journalists rely on these internships for exposure.

“You have to find a way to distinguish yourself,” says Vomiero.

Many students are under the impression that without unpaid internships, there won’t be enough opportunities to build up a resume in order to find an actual paying job. However, these unpaid internships are illegal and are replacing paid jobs.

As Teresa Lo said in her book Realities: A Collection of Short Stories, “They make us work ridiculous hours, for free, and they make us do things an employee would do.”

There is an idea that is pervasive within the journalism world, as well as areas of the arts and entertainment world, that an individual must pay their dues before expecting to make a living from their work.

“To gain experience in this shifting market, people are getting desperate and feel like they don’t deserve to get paid for the work they’re learning to do,” says Ryerson University journalism student Morgan Bocknek.

This mentality has existed in journalism for decades; however, many students and organizations are beginning to stand up for the rights of journalists and demand pay for work. Interns are beginning to work together and share their unpaid internship experiences through the media and blog posts on Internsheep.

The first issue that many students have with unpaid internships is that journalists should not have to prove their worthiness in order to earn the right to be paid at least minimum wage.

“People should get paid for work, it doesn’t matter what the work is,” says Bocknek.

The second issue is that unpaid internships are accessible only to the rich; they are unfeasible for any student who is financially independent. The majority of students that can actually afford unpaid internships are those that come from families who are financially well off, leaving those students who have to find paying jobs struggling to balance school, work, and more unpaid work.

Students like Bocknek are forced to take on part time jobs while also working an unpaid internship in order to pay for rent, food, tuition, and other basic necessities.

“I worked two other jobs while I was doing that because I had to eat,” Bocknek said.

In the short term, unpaid internships seem to be beneficial to journalism students looking for exposure. But in the long run, unpaid internships will lead to higher and higher standards for receiving actual paying jobs.

“If all students at all universities refused to [accept unpaid internships], then there would be a significant change,” said Lindsey Fitzgerald, Ryerson University journalism graduate who refused unpaid internships as a student and continues her career as a freelance journalist.

Many journalists see unpaid internships as the only way to gain exposure when in fact there are other options available outside the job market of major cities like Toronto.

Business reporter Karen Ho has voiced her opinion about unpaid internships through her twitter account and in several blog entries. Ho offered two possible alternatives to working in the city and being pressured into unpaid internships.

First she suggested working in a smaller city or town. In such settings, journalists can find opportunities to work with news organizations that may not be as widely known but will potentially offer more reasonable compensation for internships.

Ho’s second suggestion is to look towards the U.S. for internship opportunities, as the job market is larger than that in Canada.

“That’s an avenue that a lot of Canadian journalists students don’t know about,” she says.

With the pressures to find experience before entering the real world, it is no wonder that journalism students are subjecting themselves to work without pay. However, the long-term consequences are a possible downward spiral in the journalism job market.

Ultimately, the more that journalists understand the value of their work, the more unpaid internships will diminish and be replaced with paid opportunities. As journalism graduate Lindsey Fitzgerald says, it will take the majority of journalists standing together and protesting the unjust practice of unpaid internships to create a change in the journalism community.

“It takes a large movement of people to actually stop something that’s already started,” Fitzgerald said.

Are journalists ready to start that movement?


This article was funded by Media Works, a project of CWA Canada, in collaboration with the Canadian University Press and the National Campus and Community Radio Association. For more original labour stories and a handbook on media worker rights and labour reporting, visit www.media-works.org


Posted on April 14, 2015 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

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