Australian PTSD Trial Spotlights Mental Health Issues in Journalism

In a case being closely watched by the Australian media, an award-winning photojournalist is suing The Age newspaper in Melbourne, claiming the paper failed to provide a safe workplace and breaching its responsibility to care for her mental health. 

The photographer’s lawsuit, which is currently being tried at the Victorian Supreme Court, may be the first involving a journalist’s claim of occupational post-traumatic stress disorder to go to trial anywhere in the world.

A ruling in favor of the photographer—identified in court papers only as AZ in order to protect her privacy—could establish a new precedent for the obligation news companies have to provide treatment and protection for their employees who may suffer psychological injury.  Either way, the case is already casting a spotlight on how news managers at The Age prepared and trained their staff for dealing with traumatic assignments, and the broader availability of support programs for journalists whose work puts them at risk of PTSD. 

Both sides in the case are employing leading Australian PTSD specialists as expert witnesses. Dart Center Asia Pacific Managing [DCAP] director Cait McMahon and journalist Gary Tippet, a former reporter for The Age and a current member of DCAP’s board, are testifying under subpoena about trauma awareness at The Age and other background issues in the case.

Photographer AZ was a 20-year veteran of The Age and a winner of the Walkely Award, Australia’s most prestigious journalism prize. In 2003, she was assigned to a series about the one-year anniversary of the Bali Bombings. Those bombings, the deadliest terrorist attack in Indonesia’s history, left 202 people dead, including 88 Australians. According to her lawyer Tim Tobin, the assignment often left AZ in tears and she began suffering nightmares. Her mental health continued to deteriorate, and after two years on sick leave, she was fired by the paper in 2007. She continues to suffer from PSTD, anxiety and extreme depression.

According to a report in the Australian, in arguments to the court on the trial’s opening day, lawyer Tobin described the environment in which journalists work: “You've got to be tough. You've got to get on with it,” he said. “Journalists were taught that they had to be above the story and not emotional. If they so reacted to the story, they were thought to be weak." The Australian Broadcasting Corporation  reports that the court heard that The Age staff did not seek help for fear of being deemed unprofessional and that their normal coping mechanism was to drink excessively.

AZ’s legal team argued that the paper did not respond when a colleague she had worked closely with on the Bali series committed suicide, and that the paper ignored a request from her to help pay for counseling. Lawyer Tobin told the court that The Age did not have a proper peer-support program in place where colleagues could look out for others affected by traumatic stories. Tobin, according to ABC, said the woman was transferred to a position at The Sunday Age to reduce the stress of the daily grind but was still given stressful assignments. She seeks an estimated $1 million (roughly the same in U.S. and Australian currency) in compensation for lost wages.

In its defense, The Age is arguing that at the time of the events at issue, it was at the forefront of staff care and had an employees assistance program in place.

Occupational PTSD cases are common among industrial workers and first responders, but thus far rare among news organizations. One recent, highly-publicized case in Switzerland involving a war correspondent was settled just before trial.

The Dart Center will continue to follow the developments in The Age case.