Media & Communications Law

Traumatized crime and courts reporter entitled to damages, Australian court says

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An Australian court has awarded about $127,000 in U.S. currency ($180,000 in Australian currency) to a former journalist for a Melbourne newspaper for the psychological injury she suffered while covering crime and courts for a decade.

The County Court of Victoria ruled on Feb. 22 in a case by a journalist for the Age newspaper referred to as “YZ,” the Conversation reports in a story reprinted at NiemanLab. Her suit had alleged breach of duty of care by her employer, as well as breach of employment contract.

YZ said she had suffered post-traumatic stress disorder when her crime reporting sent her to murder and rape crime scenes, funerals, police searches and criminal trials.

She spoke with family members and friends of murder victims, including people who criticized her for invading their privacy. She was threatened and was informed that her phone was probably tapped, she alleged. She also received phone calls from people threatening to kill themselves.

The “worst day of my life,” she had said, was the time she saw rescue workers performing CPR on a 4-year-old child who had been thrown from a bridge. The child did not survive. She covered 32 murders in all.

YZ was a crime reporter from 2003 until 2009, until her complaints led the newspaper to switch her to the sports desk. But a senior editor persuaded her in 2010 to switch to covering the Supreme Court, where she attended trials and heard graphic details of crimes. YZ took a voluntary layoff in 2013.

Judge Chris O’Neill said the Age had a duty to take reasonable care against foreseeable psychological injury.

“There ought to have been training and instruction to all new journalists and cadets, particularly those young and less experienced, as to the nature of the trauma, suffering and distress to which they were likely to be exposed, in the plaintiff’s case, as a crime and court reporter,” O’Neill wrote.

“Likewise, there ought to have been more comprehensive training of senior staff in trauma awareness and the ability to detect symptoms in the reporters who worked in the area,” he wrote.

In addition, O’Neill said, boundaries should have been set for reporters speaking with victims’ families, and the newspaper should have heeded advice about instituting a peer support program.

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