Interns Talk Back: Disrupting Media Narratives about Unpaid Work

Nicole S Cohen, Greig de Peuter


In the 2010s, the intern rights movement challenged the view that the unpaid internship is an innocuous labour practice. This article draws on a review of international news coverage of unpaid internships between 2008 and 2015 and considers interviews with intern activists to document and contextualize the increasingly contentious issues at stake. Our analysis of media coverage identifies five recurrent media frames: employability, tough times, social mobility, legality, and backlash. While early news content tended to normalize unpaid work, unpaid internships were increasingly labelled as exploitative, illegal, and unfair. The coverage exhibited gaps and ideological strategies of containment, yet the case of unpaid internships appears to be an anomaly considering the difficulties that unions have tended to face in getting labour perspectives into mainstream media. We offer explanations for the extensive and often critical coverage of unpaid internships, highlighting media-savvy intern advocacy groups as particularly influential actors in shifting mainstream media narratives.

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