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Herald Sun intern debacle is a hard lesson in newsroom culture

An internship at The Herald Sun is not for everyone. AAP/Joe Castro

The fury unleashed on a young Melbourne University student for writing about her internship at Australia’s biggest selling newspaper provides lessons for us all.

For those at the Herald Sun, it should be a moment to take a deep breath and think: “Is that really how the world might see us in our unguarded moments?”

For those sending students on such a placement it’s a chance to consider: “Have we sent the right person to the right place?”

For the student themselves, it’s a chance to stop and think, “Is this really the employer for me?” It might be the right career, it might just not be the right workplace.

At university, students often have a romantic idea of what it’s like to work in their chosen profession. Consider, the time-watching lawyer who set out to defend the innocent, the bulk-billing doctor who wanted to cure cancer but spends the day writing medical certificates, and the disillusioned social worker telling people they are there to help, but the services aren’t available.

Organisations have an image that they like to project, but it’s only until someone is on the inside that they can determine what it’s truly like. That’s why I think the Herald Sun should be commended for offering a “warts and all” opportunity in their newsroom to potential journalists.

Some of my best and brightest students have interned at the Herald Sun, and later been offered jobs. It hasn’t been a perfect fit for all, but many have thrived under some great mentoring by some great journalists. And just as the Herald Sun won’t be the right fit for some, neither would the ABC be right for others.

Of course, no one sending a student on an internship from any Australian university would condone sexism, racism, or any other form of discrimination. We have a duty of care to students. They should not be exposed to these kinds of things, but they do need to be prepared for them. They are, sadly, part of many workplace cultures – not just some newsrooms.

Journalists are often on the frontline of some of the most dreadful tragedies, accidents and sorrows. They have perfected the art of black humour. Are newsrooms filled with sexism, racism, and misogyny? Honestly? Yes. Is this behaviour peculiar to the Herald Sun? Absolutely not. Is it acceptable? Well, I don’t need to answer that.

Students need careful and thoughtful preparation before they enter a workplace. Being an adult worker doesn’t just require technical and theoretical skills – as anyone who has run the gauntlet of office politics knows, you need a special range of powers to successfully work with anyone.

The student wrote:

Our journalism lecturers teach us that one of the most important rules in an internship is to not question your superiors. Don’t rock the boat, don’t tell the editors how to do their job, don’t make a mess, and don’t cause a fuss.

Yes, while you are an intern, that’s exactly the best advice. It doesn’t matter if you’re interning in a newsroom, or in a hospital ward – students are there to observe, to learn. Part of it is to observe the culture and to see if it’s a good fit.

But what should happen, on the return to university, is for a debrief process to occur. After all, there’s a lot to discuss with a mentor and a guide. What went right? What went wrong? What do you do when you really want or need to speak up? Where can I go for help?

Negotiating difficult workplace cultures is hard – and there are a huge range of organisations out there offering skills training for people who struggle with this. Trying to determine the difference between black humour and something else is difficult for us all and impossible for many.

Most universities have a huge emphasis on ethics. We want to send students out with good habits, not bad ones. We don’t want to be responsible for people like Jonah Lehrer. But many workplaces are filled with older staff, many of whom have joked and laughed through too many tragedies, usually as a way of coping. It’s part of the challenge of the new generation to change inappropriate attitudes.

I’ve always said that if you want to change something, you need to be part of it. It can’t be done from the outside. Individual people do have agency, and they can change things – given the right institutional environment.

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