Culture of unpaid work experience not healthy, says leading journalism training panel

Posted on: December 3, 2020 by Claire Meadows

The culture of unpaid work experience that exists in the journalism industry is not healthy and must end, a leading training panel has said.

Closing the debates as part of the Society’s Virtual Conference for 2020, the ‘State of Training’ panel, in conjunction with the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), discussed the future of journalism training and topics including the pandemic’s impact on courses and learning, the Facebook Community News Project extension, apprenticeships and the online abuse of journalists.

Discussing the culture of unpaid work experience that exists in newsrooms, Will Gore, Head of Partnerships and Projects at the NCTJ said that the training body’s view was that unpaid placements ought not to be happening and that more industry focus needed to be placed on skills rather than networking.

He said: “There has been, for such a long time, a culture of unpaid work experience in this sector. It is not healthy and it does put a lot of people at a disadvantage if they can’t afford to be able to live without any income.”

The NCTJ had been working on best practice guidance on work experience placements Gore said, and, alongside this, more industry focus needs to be placed on skills rather than networking or who you know, he added.

He said: “It feeds into the bigger picture question around the value that the industry still places upon networking…I’m not saying that the personal connections don’t matter but sometimes too much emphasis is placed on the network and not enough on skills and on levelling the playing field in that respect…We need to get back to having a primacy on skills – what skills can an individual demonstrate which will be valuable to an employer – not who do they know or how much free work experience have they managed to blag.”

Touching upon the necessary skills for journalists in newsrooms today, the panel, chaired by SoE President Alison Gow, Audience and Content Editor for Reach plc North West, also heard from Bridgid Nzekwu, PA Media’s director of media training, Sam Cooper, journalism course leader at the Sheffield College and Sian Cox-Brooker, strategic partner manager at Facebook.

Media law training and ethics are “absolutely vital” to the future of journalism, the panel agreed.

Bridgid Nzekwu said that while digital platforms now enabled anyone the ability to post online without a filter, areas such as media law and ethics remained “vital” to the future of journalism.  

She said: “I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that media law and ethics is what will enable journalism to survive. It is the thing that separates journalism from the nonsense that is out there.

“No journalism training is complete without a very stringent focus on ethical behaviour and if we don’t stress those values, journalisms reputation – which is an illustrious one – will be trashed. The future of journalism rests on our ability to report objectively, to behave ethically and to understand how not to defame, how not to libel and how to source stories.”

Sam Cooper agreed that media law and accuracy were key to the industry’s ability to “succeed and thrive”.

He said: “Law, ethics, accuracy and being an authoritative source of information are what will make our industry succeed and thrive rather than just survive.”

Discussing the different skills that were beneficial to journalists, Facebook’s Sian Cox-Brooker said that it was not just traditional skills that were deemed valuable in newsrooms today and ongoing training in digital and video had seen established journalists able to equip their colleagues with new skills.

She said: “There are many skills as a journalist that you can bring to the job and one thing that I think is really important is about digital skills and whether that is video or news-gathering or SEO. It is not just Facebook who offer these online training courses and there is a lot of information that you can find online. It can be incredibly useful for your newsroom.”

Facebook’s journalism training resources were available to all, Cox-Brooker said, and the platform welcomed suggestions on areas to provide additional resources.

She added: “We have run a whole host of digital media bootcamps that are available to all on the Facebook journalism website. We’re always interested in hearing what journalists want to hear about so if there’s a topic that you think isn’t being covered and you think one of the platforms could help then we would really love to hear about that.”

Discussing the abuse of journalists online and whether courses were providing journalists with the tools and training to deal with online abuse, Cox-Brooker said that harassment and hate speech had no place on Facebook’s platform.

She said: “Nobody wants this kind of behaviour on any social media platform…this is absolutely not the experience I want for reporters who are using social media to talk to people or promote their stories. The vast majority of people who use social media do have a positive experience and the examples that we are talking about are a minority. Nevertheless, that is a minority that we take incredibly seriously. To be absolutely clear, harassment and hate speech have absolutely no place on our platform.”

Alongside removing content that violates its policies, Facebook also offered journalist safety training online and continued to work with partner organisations such as the International News Safety Institute (INSI) to look at the experiences of journalists and publishers around journalism safety.

She added: “This is a complex problem and it is something that we are going to continue to work on and continue to work with the industry and with publishers on solving.”

The full video of the debate is available for catch up here.

The debate was able to take place thanks to the sponsorship of Facebook Journalism Project and Camelot.

Camelot has sponsored the Society of Editors since 2001 and you saw that short video from their CEO Nigel Railton at the beginning of the session. If you would like to discuss anything with Camelot – story ideas, ways to improve working together or anything else – please let the SoE know and we’ll put you in touch with them.

Catch up on all the Society’s keynote talks and debates at