The Cost of Unpaid Experience


By now, most of you have probably heard about local news station KTVU’s gaffe involving the names of the Asiana 214 pilots. If not, you can read all about it and watch the cringe-worthy video.

There is no question that the practical joke falls somewhere between poor taste and racist1; for some reason, this particular crash has brought out that side of the media.

The part I find interesting about this specific gaffe is that the NTSB did in fact confirm these names… so it wasn’t a prankster in the newsroom, which is what I had first assumed2. As the story evolved, we found out that it was, in fact, an intern who relayed this information to KTVU.

A couple of points stand out to me about this whole fiasco:

Firstly, KTVU later issued a non-apology apology for the mistake, largely pointing the finger at the NTSB. But I take issue with the fact that they don’t address —much less apologize for—their total and utter journalistic incompetence in this situation.

The apology on their website reads “we never read the names out loud, phonetically sounding them out.” Really? The post continues “[we] rushed the names on our noon newscast.” Now the weird, self-congratulatory tripe about you being first “on-air,” “on-line”, amid a bunch of other “firsts” makes a little more sense: it’s easy to be first when you stop caring about being accurate.

Given the Proposition 8 news and this crash, I’ve been talking a lot with friends lately about the quality of local reporting, and pondering why my generation seems to not bother watching national or local news anymore.

I think this is a large part of it; this gaffe makes the entire KTVU news staff seem completely asleep at the wheel, willing to put on the air any random information they get from someone on the other end of a phone (they admit: they didn’t even question the intern’s name or position!)

With CNN reporting that Muni runs BART, and local news moving so quickly to put “facts” on the air that they can’t be bothered to check what they’re broadcasting (because, “Hey, we can always issue a non-apology-apology for making false statements later!”), is it any wonder a huge swath of people have just decided to completely tune out this noise?

Secondly, it’s been reported that the intern who told KTVU was “volunteering” and/or (probably a euphemism for) unpaid. If that’s true, and if it’s also true that they alone acted in passing these names to KTVU3, then I’m not sure I blame them all that much.

Sure, the joke was inappropriate, but there’s an interesting point to be made here: organizations who have embraced the relatively-recent phenomena of “hiring” recent graduates for “internships” which are totally unpaid—which they do solely because they know the job market is soft and they can get people to work for free—deserve what they get.

If you expect the level professionalism and loyalty that one might from an “employee,” you need to treat them with professionalism, respect, and loyalty, not as an indentured servant whom you’ve manage to sell the idea that the only reasonable “compensation” is the possibility of a recommendation at some point in the future. (And that somehow, that’s that same as paying real money for work now.)

They often justify this under the quaint notion that the work they’re getting for free will provide the intern with “valuable learning experiences” that will “last a lifetime.”

Seems to me it was the NTSB who just got served up some “life experience.”

It remains to be seen how long lasting the lesson will be…

  1. Though, truth be told, I will admit: I did LOL when I first saw it… though largely out of shock as much as anything else…
  2. Having worked in a newsroom, I have stories about “jokes” accidentally making their way through editorial and getting published, to similarly… “poor outcomes”
  3. And weren’t, for instance, reading some ill-conceived internal NTSB memo mocking the incident