A report by the British Cabinet Office released this summer offers stark evidence of the disappearance of the working class from the journalism profession, and the study offers some relevant observations for American media as well.
The report, Unleashing Aspirations, notes, among other things, that journalists born since 1970 predominantly come from middle class to upper middle class backgrounds. And Journalism ranks third in the list of the most socially exclusive professions, just behind doctors and lawyers.
The study finds that:
Between the 1958 and the 1970 birth cohorts, the biggest decline in social mobility occurred in the professions of journalism and accountancy. For example, journalists and broadcasters born in 1958 typically grew up in families with an income of around 5.5% above that of the average family; but this rose to 42.4% for the generation of journalists and broadcasters born in 1970.
The National Union of Journalists told the panel compiling the report that a 2002 Journalism Training Forum poll showed that fewer than 10 per cent of new journalists came from a working-class background and only three per cent came from homes headed by semi-skilled or unskilled workers.
One of the many troubling findings of the report, and the one most readily applicable to the profession here in the US, is that a prerequisite for entrance into a career in journalism is at least one internship experience, and that many, if not most, are unpaid. A cursory glance at available internships here in the US reveals that of 50 intern opportunities listed on journalismjobs.com, only 15 offer pay. Of the 50 internships posted, another 15 offer no pay but college credit, which at many universities, ours included, means that doing an internship actually costs a student tuition money. Here at YSU, students can earn six hours maximum for internships, but at many universities, 12 to 16 are allowed, paving the way for students to spend several thousand dollars (at least) to get an entire academic semester of work experience. .
If the student can afford this luxury and the cost of living in the city in which he or she interns, s/he in theory gains the passkey to an entry-level position somewhere upon graduation. Of course, many of the most prestigious internships are located in the media hubs of New York and Washington D.C. where the costs of living are beyond the reach of a student from an average, let alone below average wage earning household.
Of the 15 internships listed that offer pay, the average salary is just under $250 per week for an average of 35 hours, before taxes. If a student is working to pay his or her tuition and rent and also, in many cases, supporting a family while going to school, even the paid internship is an impossibility.
This means, of course, that only students who can afford to work for free for several months are gaining the credentials to access their chosen profession.
The broader implications of this exclusion from the journalism profession are obvious and have been documented by ourselves and others—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.
Of course, the best-case scenario to remedy this inequity would be if news organizations paid living wages to interns, but in the current media market, one in which many outlets are struggling to survive, this seems unlikely.
And, if the current enrollment trends in journalism programs continue, there will be ample supply of candidates ready to pay to work or work for no pay. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that despite the dismal outlook for jobs upon graduation, more and more students are choosing journalism majors, increasing the competition for scarce jobs and furthering the entrenchment of unpaid internships as a means to gain a leg up on the competition.
The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson even suggests that while the current practice is clearly exclusionary, “It’s not the responsibility or the interest of the businesses like magazines and non-profits who operate on slim budgets and narrow margins to design an internship that can accommodate even the least fortunate.” Rather Thompson argues that colleges should instead expand their acceptance of accredited internships or provide financing.
Some schools, like Dartmouth College, have done just that by providing financing for students to complete internships. The college has grants available for students to take on unpaid internships, and offers additional funds for financial aid recipients based on need.
But for working-class students at colleges and universities that lack the deep pockets of Dartmouth the choice still most often comes down to an unpaid internship that will drive them deeper into debt or a job that allows them to pay another year’s expenses– not much of a choice.
The consequences of this increasing social exclusivity of the profession are dire, and more complex than a matter of equal class representation within the ranks of professional journalists for the sake of equality or diversity.
If journalists increasingly come from a more privileged social class or segment of society, even the best of them will likely not question the master narratives that have victimized the working class for decades: maximum profit takes precedence over fair and equitable treatment, what’s good for business is always good for America, and so on.
The end result will be more stories that fail to question these fundamental assumptions, stories that inevitably reduce the worker to a trite anecdotal device, a narrative stepping stone to “really important” people and issues.
Alyssa Lenhoff and Tim Francisco