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Tweet over an unpaid internship sparks renewed debate over exploitation

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The discussion over whether unpaid internships have their merits — or are just downright exploitative — seems to resurface every few months.

One side touts that any experience is desirable, and can teach lessons about work ethic. And the other crowd counters with tales of skipping meals or being forced to work multiple jobs to hold said position, while simultaneously noting that the lack of pay presents a nearly unconquerable barrier for many lower-income individuals and people of color.

But one particular tweet from a reporter on Monday brought back the debate in full force. And while the same firestorm of comments was again ignited, this time around, the conversation online appeared to shift beyond just talking about historical norms.

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Many united around a singular response: enough is enough.

Jane Slater, a reporter for the NFL Network, first tweeted what she initially labeled as an unpaid internship opportunity, inviting broadcast journalism students to apply and reach out to her with questions.

An hour or so later, Slater followed up on the offer, appearing to be taken aback by the replies she was receiving over the fact the job was not a paid position, writing that she had three “unpaid internships in school, double majored, and had a job.”

Her next tweet, implying that anyone who was unable to survive on less than a standard living wage was not cut out for the media industry, is what really set people off.

“There is a reason not everyone makes it in this business,” Slater said. “I don’t have time for those of you who don’t understand grind.”

Throughout the day, Slater continued to retweet messages on par with the one she had conveyed, including one person who said that you have to “pay your dues to have a career” and another who said the “opportunity is more valuable than any reimbursement.”

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After people pointed out that Slater had previously said in an interview her grandfather had helped to support her financially, she again lashed out and called them “rotten” and “ugly.” Slater later walked back her earlier remark that the opportunity was an “internship” and apologized for coming across as “elitist.”

Among those who responded to her tweets, many took issue with “hustle culture” being perpetuated and the lack of compassion for those without family resources enabling them to take up such opportunities.

People shared what their own experience as an unpaid intern struggling to make it in their respective field had been like, along with the physical, mental, and often emotional toll it took on them.

The outpouring of reactions spurred Sopan Deb, a journalist with the New York Times, to note how the “unpaid internship discourse” has shifted over time, remarking that it “used to be an entire industry would try to uphold them as a norm.”

But “now, it’s one person’s tweets and the internet mobilizes en masse to dunk,” he said.

His colleague Astead Herndon, a national politics reporter at the paper, said he has learned that people “who think being broke for an unpaid internship was some fun or some necessary experience usually weren’t broke.”

Rather, Herndon said, those individuals likely had money and family they could fall back on in times of need. When he took on an unpaid media internship, Herndon began working at Jimmy John’s.

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But when he was fired from the job, Herndon said that “worse than losing the [minimum] wage check” was the fact he also lost “a guaranteed meal.”

Freelance journalist Lexi McMenamin shared a similar sentiment. The one internship she took in college was out of a feeling she “had to.”

“I went hungry living off $1 boxes of pasta. I got berated [because] I couldn’t afford a MetroCard,” McMenamin wrote. “I was so ashamed I stopped applying to writing gigs.”

The experience, McMenamin said, “materially damaged my career.”

Kat Stafford, a national investigative writer for the Associated Press, said whenever the conversation over unpaid internships again makes it rounds, she can’t help but think of all the “Black/POC journalists who couldn’t afford to take one [and] were unable to break into the industry.”

“Unpaid internships are barriers for many, not a badge of honor,” she said. “I almost didn’t pursue journalism because of it.”

Because of these roadblocks, the industry has “suffered tremendously,” Stafford said, as Black and other voices are shut out of the conversation.

While some may be tired of having this discussion again, Stafford said she “is not.”

“I want every young journalist to understand that they deserve to be paid for their labor,” she said, highlighting how those affected by the racial wealth gap and those who are first-generation students without any generational assets are automatically disadvantaged.

“Are we ready to talk about how that impacts journalism [and] who gets opportunities?” Stafford posed.

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Brian Munoz, a visuals fellow with USA Today, detailed in a personal thread how he grew up poor, the son of Mexican immigrants — relaying his own life experiences to convey how “unpaid internships are how industries systemically keep marginalized communities out of them.”

Munoz described how his family relied on public assistance programs for some time as a means “to get enough food on our table.” While his dad worked by day at a scrapyard, his mom worked by night at a factory. In elementary school, Munoz would make items like bracelets to sell at a local flea market so he wouldn’t have to ask his parents for money.

“I knew they didn’t have much and were giving me everything they could,” Munoz said.

His first encounter with journalism — being interviewed by a local journalist and photojournalist — “left a long-lasting impact on a poor little Mexican boy,” Munoz said.

When he grew older, Munoz shared how he maxed out on student loans in order to attend his dream journalism school and spent nearly all of his savings — over $1,000 — on Uber rides “trying to get places in an attempt to build up my experience.” But drivers began canceling on him, Munoz said, because his neighborhood was seen as “dangerous.”

“Journalism, along with other industries, all have systemic barriers in places that will keep their industries favoring those from upper socio-economic classes,” Munoz said. “Unpaid internships are a prime example of systems that directly exploit people and their labor.”

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He concluded: “At the end of the day, the ‘you have to put in your dues’ excuse needs to end. We need to offer paid (and livable) opportunities to those from marginalized communities. Those in power need to take note of their candidate’s personal backgrounds and how to best support them.”

Even New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez waded into the discussion, urging employers to pay their interns.

“You won’t be relying on privilege to subsidize staffing and your interns can do better work that they’re proud of when they aren’t exhausted working 2-3 jobs to subsidize one,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

In a clip attached to the tweet, Ocasio-Cortez is seen standing alongside Representative Ayanna Pressley and Representative Rashida Tlaib. “Experience,” Ocasio-Cortez shouts into the camera, “doesn’t pay the bills.”

See what others had to stay on the topic:

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of New York Times reporter Astead Herndon.


Shannon Larson can be reached at shannon.larson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shannonlarson98.