Internships are an essential experience for student journalists. They give us real-life experience in a newsroom and allow students to publish our first tentative copy, our baby steps into the world of journalism. They’re a privilege and they’re a rite of passage.
This is why our world was rocked last week when an anonymous piece was published in Melbourne University magazine Farrago by student Sasha Burden claiming to reveal a misogynistic, callous culture at the Herald Sun. She objected to the “heteronormative, white, elitist opinions” expressed by the paper’s journalists, which included an editorial discussion about breast implants on pigs, or “perky porkers” and a request that a female journalist needed to write an article about liking chocolate.
The first response of many people at my university was that she had crippled internship programs across the profession. There would be less incentive to treat us as adults any more and we could probably expect chillier receptions in the future. As a senior journalist at the ABC tweeted, “Interns will be less trusted from now on”.
A large number of my peers have had internships at the Herald Sun, as well as other publications such as the Colac Herald, the Examiner and the Melbourne Weekly. Many of the people I spoke to felt that a lot of what Burden saw is part and parcel of working in a newsroom, or anywhere for that matter.
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“A workplace is a microcosm of society,” said a former journalism student who now works at the ABC and asked for her name not to be published. “You will meet people with uneducated and confronting views. If every intern was to whistleblow on their employer, we’d uncover a shitstorm. An internship is about tact and maturity — something this intern lacked in my opinion. If anything, it just proved she’s far too inexperienced to be working in a newsroom with adults.”
Others said they had simply never experienced anything like what she described. RMIT student Andrea Nierhoff, who has interned at three separate publications, spoke positively of her experiences as an intern at the Herald Sun.
“I didn’t find anything shocking or any evidence of prejudiced attitudes. And I wouldn’t have been particularly shocked if I had. From what I saw, everyone was respectful and understanding. I especially didn’t find anything that made me think twice about the paper or the journalism industry in general,” she said.
A former Monash University student, who spent several months at the Herald Sun and also wished to remain anonymous, admitted she found the experience at times confronting and overwhelming.
“Sometimes I was shocked at the line that the paper took on what their target audience was. They took it so seriously,” she said. “It could make things a bit repetitive. Whenever we went out to do vox pops we had to find a tradie, young mothers, a token old person, the same kind of things all the time. Another reporter and I once spent hours driving around Melbourne looking for a tradie and when we found one I was so grateful I didn’t wait for the car to stop, I just jumped out.”
However despite this she said she never had any problem with the culture at the paper.
“I genuinely found them to be the nicest people. There may be a line that the Herald Sun took on certain issues, but the thing I have to stress with that is that it isn’t the people in the newsroom. It’s just the line they have to take,” she said.
Many of the former interns I spoke to said they found the experience intense and unexpected. Some others thought they had to roll with the punches and learn from the team rather than questioning their editorial policy. All said they had never seen anything particularly offensive in their time working in the industry.
RMIT student Annie Kearney, who also interned the Herald Sun, said perhaps Burden just didn’t know what she was getting herself into. “I think she didn’t understand what it was going to be like. A lot of people finish a degree in journalism and they don’t know what a newsroom will be like. People come out of university and it’s a very PC, learning environment where everyone wants to learn and then they go into an area where it’s high pressure and intense and they’re shocked. It’s not pretend in a newsroom.”