Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Are you willing to pay for Prepare to be asked before year’s end
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
March 8, 2019, 1:14 p.m.

Should news orgs be legally liable for the traumatic situations they put reporters in? A landmark court decision in Australia says yes

A judge ruled that a newspaper, like any employer, has “a duty to take reasonable care against the risk of foreseeable injury, including foreseeable psychiatric injury,” to its staff. Will the threat of lawsuits push newsrooms to provide more support to journalists?

A landmark ruling by an Australian court is expected to have international consequences for newsrooms, putting media companies on notice they could face large compensation claims if they fail to take care of their journalists who regularly cover traumatic events.

The Victorian County Court accepted the potential for psychological damage on those whose work requires them to report on traumatic events, including violent crimes. The court ruled on February 22 that a journalist for the Melbourne-based newspaper The Age be awarded AU$180,000 (about $127,000 U.S.) for psychological injury suffered during the decade she worked there, from 2003 to 2013.

The journalist, known in court as “YZ” to protect her identity, reported on 32 murders and many more cases as a court reporter. She covered Melbourne’s “gangland wars,” was threatened by one of its notorious figures, and found it increasingly difficult to report on events involving the death of children, such as the case of four-year-old Darcey Freeman, who was thrown by her father from a bridge in 2009.

After complaining that she was “done” with “death and destruction,” the journalist was transferred to the sports desk. But a senior editor later persuaded her, against her wishes, to cover the Supreme Court, where she was exposed to detailed, graphic accounts of horrific crimes, including the trials of Donna Fitchett, Robert Farquharson, and Darcey Freeman’s father.

The repeated exposure to traumatic events had a serious impact on her mental health. YZ took a voluntary redundancy from the newspaper in 2013.

In her court challenge, the journalist alleged The Age:

  • had no system in place to enable her to deal with the trauma of her work,
  • failed to provide support and training in covering traumatic events, including from qualified peers,
  • did not intervene when she and others complained, and
  • transferred her to court reporting after she had complained of being unable to cope with trauma experienced from previous crime reporting.

The Age contested whether the journalist was actually suffering from post-traumatic stress. It argued that even if a peer-support program had been in place, it would not have made a material difference to the journalist’s experience.

The newspaper also denied it knew or should have known there was a foreseeable risk of psychological injury to its journalists — while simultaneously arguing that the plaintiff knew “by reason of her work she was at high risk of foreseeable injury.”

Judge Chris O’Neill found the journalist’s evidence more compelling than the media company’s, even though the psychological injury she had suffered put her at a disadvantage when being cross-examined in court.

“This is a historic judgment — the first time in the world, to my knowledge, that a news organisation has been found liable for a reporter’s occupational PTSD,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma in the United States.1

Media companies need to take PTSD seriously

This was not the first time a journalist has sued over occupational PTSD, as Shapiro calls it, but it is the first time one has succeeded.

In 2012, another Australian journalist unsuccessfully sued the same newspaper. In that case (previously discussed by one of us in Australian Journalism Review), the judge was reluctant to accept either the psychological impact on journalists covering traumatic events or The Age’s tardiness in implementing a trauma-aware newsroom. In contrast, the judge in the YZ case readily accepted both concepts.

Historically, the idea of journalists suing their employers for occupational PTSD was unheard of. Newsroom culture dictated that journalists did whatever was asked of them, including intrusions on grieving relatives. Doing this sort of work was intrinsic to the so-called “school of hard knocks,” part of the initiation process for rookie journalists.

The academic literature shows that newsroom culture has been a key contributor to the problem of journalists feeling unable to express concerns about covering traumatic events for fear of appearing weak and unsuited to the job.

What was alarming in the evidence provided to Judge O’Neill was the extent to which these attitudes still hold sway in contemporary newsrooms. YZ said that as a crime reporter she worked in a “blokey environment” where the implicit message was “toughen up, princess.”

Duty of care

The YZ case shows The Age had learned little from its earlier court case about its duty of care to journalists. One of its own witnesses, the editorial training manager, gave evidence of his frustration at being unable to persuade management to implement a suitable training and support program.

The Dart Center has a range of tip sheets on its website for self-care and peer support. But what’s clear from this case is that it’s not just about individual journalists and what they do — it’s about editors and media executives taking action.

One media organization leading the way is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The national broadcaster has had a peer-support program in place for a decade. Such programs are vital, not just for individual journalists, but for democracy and civil society. That’s because, despite the massive changes that have been sweeping through the news industry, there’s been no real change in the number of disasters, crimes, and traumatic events that need to be covered.

News workers need help. And they are beginning to demand it.

Matthew Ricketson is a professor of communication at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia. Alexandra Wake is a senior lecturer in journalism at RMIT University in Melbourne. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.The Conversation

Illustration by Antoaneta Abadzhieva used under a Creative Commons license.

  1. Disclosures: Matthew Ricketson is chair of the board of directors of the Dart Centre Asia Pacific, which is affiliated with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma in the United States. It’s a volunteer position. During part of the period covered by the YZ court case, he worked as a journalist at The Age. Alexandra Wake also sits on the Dart Centre Asia Pacific board, and in 2011 was named a Dart Academic Fellow, which included travel to New York for training at Dart’s expense. []
POSTED     March 8, 2019, 1:14 p.m.
Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Are you willing to pay for Prepare to be asked before year’s end
The cable news network plans to launch a new subscription product — details TBD — by the end of 2024. Will Mark Thompson repeat his New York Times success, or is CNN too different a brand to get people spending?
Errol Morris on whether you should be afraid of generative AI in documentaries
“Our task is to get back to the real world, to the extent that it is recoverable.”
In the world’s tech capital, Gazetteer SF is staying off platforms to produce good local journalism
“Thank goodness that the mandate will never be to look what’s getting the most Twitter likes.”