By Janice Tibbetts
At Concordia University’s journalism department, we have been considering whether we should have a policy on unpaid internships.
The faculty—reflecting a sentiment common among many journalists—is conflicted on whether journalism schools and departments should post advertisements for work without pay, which could be interpreted as giving tacit support.
Debate over unpaid internship programs has persisted, on and off, for decades. However, they have drawn a flood of criticism in recent months after the Ontario Ministry of Labour ordered The Walrus and Toronto Life magazines to shut down their internships programs, asserting they violated the province’s employment standards law.
Journalism educators from schools across Canada are expected to discuss the prospect of adopting policies when they gather for a convention at Ryerson University on May 31.
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Journalism schools have long considered internships to be a vital part of the real-world experience that help students land paying media jobs after graduation. Some schools require internships as a condition of program completion, while others consider them to be an optional element. At Concordia, there is no mandatory internship, although they are encouraged. The school posts positions—both paid and unpaid—that are considered to have journalistic merit.
There’s a consensus that there is a compelling upside to unpaid internships: students get contacts, work experience and sometimes paying jobs.
A strong argument against unpaid internships is that they favour students who can afford to work without pay and virtually shut out those who do not have the luxury of offering their services for free. Often, these are the kind of workers who are already missing from media outlets. Effectively, unpaid internships give students with money the advantage of boosting their resumes, at the expense of their have-not counterparts.
Another problem is that there is a sense that unpaid work is increasingly replacing work for pay, and calling the positions “internships” is a way of sidestepping paying minimum wage.
When assessing the pros and cons, journalists and journalism schools often draw a distinction between short internships of a couple of weeks—usually during the school year—and longer stints of possibly several months during summer breaks or after graduation. The former is generally considered to be a good opportunity to gain experience, while requiring aspiring journalists to work without pay cheques for months on end is another matter.
The dilemma is far from confined to journalism. While there appears to be a lack of data on the number of unpaid interns in Canada, University Affairs magazine reported last September that there are as many as 300,00, according to some estimates. The publication, which surveyed universities and individual programs, reported “there is a mixed bag of policies on internships and most policies aren’t coordinated across the university.”
University of Regina’s journalism school, which requires students to complete a 13-week internship, only endorses paid gigs. Ryerson University’s journalism school, in Toronto, according to University Affairs, encourages but does not require internships and does not insist that they be paid. However, students can receive course credits as compensation.
At Concordia, students get credits or scholarships to offset unpaid work. Another option is a new co-op program that began this year, in which students with high marks are eligible for paid work placements.
The journalism department wants to examine policies and practices at other Canadian journalism schools before deciding whether to adopt a policy.
Janice Tibbetts teaches journalism at Concordia University in Montreal. She spent more than two decades in the daily news business, working for Postmedia News, Canadian Press, Chronicle-Herald and the Halifax Daily News. She has written extensively about justice, federal and provincial politics and legal affairs.
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