Herald Sun intern debacle is a hard lesson in newsroom culture

Alexandra Wake of RMIT University argues that newsrooms, lecturers and students can all learn from The Hun Mole saga.

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.


  1. Mikko
    10 Aug 12
    9:48 am

  2. Ms. Mole, well done. Your accurate characterisation of the antithesis of a typical Herald Sun reader demonstrates how well you know the audience of the paper, as well as tipping your hat to the journalists and editors that work there for walking the talk. The original article was a satirical take on neo-liberalism and the self-indulgence of youth, am I correct?

  3. The Worst of Perth
    10 Aug 12
    10:47 am

  4. The responses to this article have been amazing. Commentators, from hardened journos and editors to academics have managed to out princess the intern princess.

    There seems to have been some solidarity behind the view that journos can be sexist etc because they witness tragedies? Cobblers

    “Trying to determine the difference between black humour and something else is difficult for us all and impossible for many.” – and yet you were able to write that with a straight face.

  5. no-one important
    10 Aug 12
    10:55 am

  6. I’m not a journalist, have very little time for them really, believe their stories often have fewer facts than the ads they sit next to.

    But having read the article (by the student) it yet again goes to show the arrogance of university students and their belief that everyone is an idiot and doesn’t know as much as they do – wow two weeks work experience, you should be editor by now. Uni students really need to get over themselves and no-one more than this little precious package. What the hell were you expecting unicorns and rainbows?
    While many of the issues stated should not be tolerated in any workplace not just a newsroom, the one thing that caught my attention and made me shake my head on disbelief at the stupidity of this person was the comment ‘Men were also continuously and unnecessarily sexist, waiting for me to walk through doors and leave the elevator before them.’ Last time I checked princess this is polite manners. I am sick of copping abuse from women because of opening doors, or offering my seat on public transport, and it’s people like this that make you reluctant to do so.

    I do however, find it a tad ironic that should she have written the same article but about a different company it probably would have been included in the paper as an opinion piece.

    If the student author of the article never enters the realm of journalism then it’s a win for the Australian reader.

  7. I wonder
    10 Aug 12
    1:14 pm

  8. As written the Herald Sun newsroom sounds like any workplace I know and if anything sounds like it has some pretty funny people working there.

    Not every article is life changing, politically important or even newsworthy.

    The people that write the stories are often as flawed as the people they’re writing about and I think that instead of filling journalism students heads full of kumbaya sentiment they would do well to understand that green left weekly handholding isn’t of much commerical value.

    Obviously the article was written by someone who missed the lecture ‘harden up 101’

    I have a new found respect for the Herald Sun based on the article as written.

  9. No one important 2
    10 Aug 12
    1:31 pm

  10. To the intern – welcome to the working world lovey.

  11. Scoop
    10 Aug 12
    1:49 pm

  12. This is exactly why it’s so important to do work experience. Students should do it in their first year at uni, rather than at the end. I know too many people who wasted three years of their life studying jouralism, only to find out during work experience that it’s not for them and move into PR.

  13. archie
    10 Aug 12
    2:39 pm

  14. why did they move to PR, Scoop? because it’s a growth profession that pays a lot more?

  15. AFM
    10 Aug 12
    4:43 pm

  16. Wow…

    I was going to write a well thought through and logical response to this anonymous intern’s article and then I realised that it just wasn’t worth the time.

    What a brat. I’ve worked at HWT and although like every workplace it has its negatives, it also has a lot of positives.

    Unfair and cowardly writing.

  17. Craig
    10 Aug 12
    7:37 pm

  18. So it is OK for a newsroom to demean people because journalists are special people with hard jobs? PULEASE!

    It seems the industry most in need of good PR advice is journalism. Journalists rate as more untrustworthy than politicians and rarely get respect from the public – because they operate as a guild who doesn’t respect outsiders – including the people they report on.

    Maybe we need a Gruen challenge to PR companies: come up with a strategy that would make Australians trust and respect journalists.

    Or is that too hard given how there are members of the journalistic profession who are better at putting their feet in their mouth than Julia Gillard.

  19. adjective
    11 Aug 12
    5:21 pm

  20. Congrats. She’s brave and wrote what she encountered. I worked for them and in my opinion, had an incompetant alcoholic boss. This was in another News Ltd office. We had to work in asbestos office and constantly was told what to do to suit the story.

    I’ve worked in the Herald and felt as if everyone is in love with themselves and they name credit.

  21. Herald
    12 Aug 12
    7:06 pm

  22. Well I guess Alexandra Wake is a journalist. But I doubt that she’s spent much time in newsrooms. Nor any other workplaces?
    And of course the Hun newsroomn is full of conversations that make light of the workl. Because the work is fundamentally opposed to human nature. (Few people want to spend their day talking to people who don’t want to talk.)
    It surprises no one that they are bigots and boyish.

  23. Jethro Dull
    13 Aug 12
    3:46 pm

  24. “Men were also continuously and unnecessarily
    sexist, waiting for me to walk through doors
    and leave the elevator before them”

    oh please.

  25. In truth
    15 Aug 12
    10:36 am

  26. Actually Herald, Alex Wake has been a journalist for years. I reckon after working at the ABC (she’s still there actually) and training journalists all over the world she may have a faint idea of what she’s talking about.

  27. really.
    16 Aug 12
    3:27 pm

  28. Jethro Dull – couldn’t have said it better.

    I really wonder how she made it through school, university and life with such idealism in tact – only to have it shattered in a terrible work place where men hold doors for you.

  29. The Worst of Perth
    16 Aug 12
    3:38 pm

  30. It hasn’t been” common politeness” to hold a door for women since these dinosaurs were children. This behaviour would – I am certain – be mainly designed to check out her arse.

  31. tom
    22 Aug 12
    5:28 am

  32. you have chosen not to publish my comment on this story.Could you please give me some feedback,so I may be better informed.With respect Tom O’Connor

  33. tom
    24 Aug 12
    4:44 am

  34. Further to my contribution to this News Ltd intern debate, could I refere you to The Gardian story in the UK,where an intern at another Murdoch publication was asked to strip naked and pose with another naked staff member, in a re creation of the Prince Harry sensation.Could you please look again at Ms Burdens account of life inside the Murdoch media?

  35. Golum
    24 Aug 12
    10:34 am

  36. the worst of perth your comments are infantile and puerile, displaying your inexperience and perhaps your own leering proclivities

    as you grow up you will learn that all men don’t spend their day seeking opportunities to look at women’s arses

    in the part of the work world where the serious things happen, any man failing to permit where convenient a woman to enter a room or exit a a lift first would be derided for his sense of self-importance

    manners and grace do not equate to sexism

  37. Golum
    24 Aug 12
    10:41 am

  38. ..judging by the extensive airing you elect to give graffiti penises on your blog, Worst of Perth, i’d say you harbour the strongest desire to arse-check any woman in front of you. So please don’t ascribe the same tendency to the rest of the male gender.

  39. Bob
    24 Aug 12
    11:10 am

  40. You should generally know what to expect before entering any industry. If you wanted to become a divorce lawyer, you wouldn’t expect warmth and fuzzies, right? And given journalism is one of the least ethical industries from almost any perspective, that should’ve been obvious to our precious intern. (Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past 300 years)

  41. The Worst of Perth
    24 Aug 12
    11:32 am

  42. There are some in this thread who appear, without irony, to be suggesting that journalists are equipped with manners and politeness. Aparently they have never met one.

  43. anon
    27 Aug 12
    5:35 pm

  44. The intern’s equation of chivalrous ettiquette to sexism is appauling. You missed your’e opportunity for bra burning sweetpea.