The Aftermath of a Trial
An Australian photojournalist’s failed bid to sue Melbourne’s The Age newspaper for damages over her post-traumatic stress disorder has sparked calls for a new industry-wide response by media companies to avoid lawsuits from journalists whose work could expose them to psychological injury.
The award-winning photographer, who can only be referred to as AZ, had claimed the newspaper failed to provide a safe workplace and had breached its responsibility to care for her mental health. But in September a State of Victoria Supreme Court judge found that she had not proved The Age was negligent.
The case was closely watched by Australian media and this week Chris Merritt, legal affairs reporter at The Australian, wrote that the case had demonstrated “that if media outlets know—or should have known—that a journalist is susceptible to psychological injury from covering traumatic events, the media outlet could be liable for subsequent injuries.”
Despite The Age being found not liable in the AZ case, personal injury lawyer Peter Carter said “the genie is out of the bottle,” according to Merritt’s story.
Carter, a principal of Carter Capner, said The Age’s success in the case did not preclude the possibility that other plaintiffs in similar cases would eventually succeed. “This should be top of mind for people who are assigning journalists to stories,” he said.
While reporting on traumatic events was a normal part of the media’s role, Carter said police and ambulance services were aware of the risk of litigation and had programs in place to monitor psychological health.
Michael Gawenda, The Age editor-in-chief when the paper covered the anniversary of the Bali bombings, which AZ alleged had sparked her PTSD, said the media should be more pro-active and put in place protocols, in order to head off the possibility of litigation.
He said the issue of foreseeability was significant. “I can imagine that it is foreseeable that somebody is going to go through trauma covering something like the actual Bali bombings…There is no getting away from the fact that some of the stories we cover are confronting and difficult and can lead to trauma.”
In The Australian, Gawenda called for an industry-wide initiative to examine all issues associated with the impact on journalists of covering traumatic events. “If we don’t do that, I think we will end up with cases where the media goes down big time.”