Media companies on notice over traumatised journalists after landmark Age court decision

Source: Pacific Media Centre

Analysis published with permission of PMC

A landmark ruling by an Australian court is expected to have international consequences for newsrooms, with media companies on notice they face large compensation claims if they fail to take care of 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 an Age journalist be awarded A$180,000 for psychological injury suffered during the decade she worked at the Melbourne-based newspaper, from 2003 to 2013.

READ MORE: New research reveals how Australian journalists are faring four years after redundancy

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 West Gate 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
  • 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 programme had been in place it would not have made a material difference to the journalist’s experience.

Further, The Age denied it knew or should have known there was a foreseeable risk of psychological injury to its journalists and simultaneously argued 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.

Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma in the United States, says:

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.

Media companies need to take PTSD seriously
This is 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 earlier case, discussed by a co-author of this article (Ricketson) 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 stark contrast, the judge in the YZ case readily accepted both these key 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, or “death knocks” as they are known. Doing these was intrinsic to the so-called “school of hard knocks”. Cadet journalists were blooded in the newsroom by their ability to do these tasks.

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 is alarming from the evidence provided to Judge O’Neill is 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 learnt little about its duty of care to journalists from the earlier case it defended. 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 programme. Judge O’Neill found him a compelling witness.

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

One media organisation that is leading the way is the ABC. The national broadcaster has had a peer-support programme in place for a decade.

Such programmes are vital, not just for individual journalists, but for democracy and civil society. This is because whatever changes have been sweeping through the news media, there is no change in the incidence of disasters, crimes and traumatic events that need to be covered.

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

Dr Matthew Ricketson is professor of communication at Deakin University . He is also chair of the board of directors of the Dart Centre Asia-Pacific, which is affiliated with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma based in the United States. It is a voluntary position. During part of the period covered by the YZ court case he worked as a journalist at The Age.

Dr Alexandra Wake is journalism programme manager at RMIT University. She is also on the Dart Centre Asia Pacific board, and in 2011 was named a Dart Academic Fellow. As part of that process, Alex traveled to Columbia University in New York for training, at Dart’s expense. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence.



Bearing Witness 2017: Year 2 of a Pacific climate change storytelling project

Source: Pacific Media Centre

Analysis published with permission of PMC

David Robie, Pacific Media Centre

Monday, February 25, 2019


In 2016, the Pacific Media Centre responded to the devastation and tragedy wrought in Fiji by Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston by initiating the Bearing Witness journalism project and dispatching two postgraduate students to Viti Levu to document and report on the impact of climate change (Robie & Chand, 2017). This was followed up in 2017 in a second phase of what was hoped would become a five-year mission and expanded in future years to include other parts of the Asia-Pacific region. This project is timely, given the new 10-year Strategic Plan 2017-2026 launched by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) in March and the co-hosting by Fiji of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP23) climate change conference in Bonn, Germany, during November. The students dispatched in 2017 on the  ‘bearing witness’ journalism experiential assignment to work in collaboration with the Pacific Centre for the Environment and Sustainable Development (PaCE-SD) and the Regional Journalism Programme at the University of the South Pacific included a report about the relocation of a remote inland village of Tukuraki. They won the 2017 media and trauma prize of the Asia-Pacific Dart Centre, an agency affiliated with the Columbia School of Journalism. This article is a case study assessing the progress with this second year of the journalism project and exploring the strategic initiatives under way for more nuanced and constructive Asia-Pacific media storytelling in response to climate change.

Bearing Witness 2016



A life well lived paves way to encourage Pasifika women in communication

Source: Pacific Media Centre

Analysis published with permission of PMC

Geraldine Lopdell’s family was looking for a fitting way to celebrate a “life well lived” when they decided to set up one of AUT’s newest awards.

During life, Geraldine had been an excellent teacher and artist, a supportive and generous friend and a captivating storyteller with an adventurous spirit.

Her early years were spent in Tonga and Samoa where her family travelled for her father’s work, and she had a firm belief that more women’s stories and views – particularly those of Pasifika women – needed to be told and heard.

The Geraldine Lopdell Award for Diversity in Communication will encourage Pasifika women to tell their stories. The first prize will be given in April 2019, nearly one year after Geraldine’s passing. It will be set at $1,200, and is anticipated to be offered annually for an initial term of ten years.

Deciding a memorial award to support something she cared about would be a fitting way to celebrate her life, Geraldine’s partner Colin and her two daughters Alex and Anne had approached their family friend, AUT’s Professor David Robie and have since been working with the AUT Foundation to establish the award.

Professor Robie, who heads up AUT’s Pacific Media Centre – Te Amokura, suggested a prize be established alongside the existing Storyboard Award for Diversity Reporting. It was decided the Pacific Media Centre, with its focus on telling ignored and ‘untold’ stories, and amplifying Pasifika women’s voices, was a natural fit for an award to celebrate this special woman’s legacy.

The family believe that Geraldine would have been honoured to have this award established in her name as she would have wanted to value the contributions and perspectives of Pasifika women.

Future generations
As Colin says: “The award is about recognising the life of an extraordinary and wonderful woman by encouraging an extraordinary and wonderful woman at the start of her career. She would have liked her legacy to support the next generation.

“It’s not just about making a financial difference to the recipient, although clearly we hope that it will help. It is about saying to them that we acknowledge your hard work, we recognise your achievements, you are doing brilliantly, keep going!”

Setting an award up is fairly straightforward, Alex says: “and you can direct it in a way to match up with the social changes that you want to encourage and see. It’s something that can benefit future generations and depending how you set it up, it can go on in perpetuity.’

Alex and Colin say they would love to see more awards of this type, “because you don’t have to have a huge amount of money to do something small and positive. We’d love to see other people think in this space and unleash that potential.”

Stand by for news of the first recipient of the Geraldine Lopdell Memorial Award for Excellence in Communication – and undoubtedly, a few great stories from the recipient.
The Geraldine Lopdell Award for Diversity in Communication – criteria and background

More information



MIL-OSI Reportage: PMC director reports on historic New Caledonia referendum 30 years on

Source: Pacific Media Centre

Analysis published with permission of PMC

By Craig Major of AUT Communications

Professor David Robie, Director of the Pacific Media Centre in the School of Communication Studies, has been part of the contingent of more than 100 journalists and media academics reporting on and analysing the historic New Caledonian independence referendum in early November. Only 2 out of the 100 were from New Zealand.

David was interviewed by Tokyo TV and other media and had several of his archival photos used in media such as SBS World News because of his specialist knowledge of the 1980s insurrection known locally as “les evenements” that led to the referendum 30 years later.

New Caledonians voted 56% against independence from France while the strong yes vote of 44% (the indigenous Kanaks are in a minority) has opened the door for delicate negotiations and two further referendums in 2020 and 2022.

Professor Robie authored a book in 1989, Blood On Their Banner: Nationalist Struggles in the South Pacific, published by Zed Books in London, which is widely cited today about the period, and a sequel in 2014 Don’t Spoil My beautiful face: Media, Mayhem & Human Rights in the Pacific.

He has also written several articles on the referendum and the events leading up to on Asia Pacific Report.

The Pacific Media Centre has had a busy month with coverage of the Fiji general election on November 14 in collaboration with the University of the South Pacific Journalism programme and also coverage of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in collaboration with EMTV News.

Postgraduate student Sri Krishnamurthi flew to Fiji to report on the election in partnership with USP’s Wansolwara student newspaper as a continuation of his International Journalism Project.

Read David’s articles on the Asia Pacific Report website


MIL OSI Analysis