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A former Age crime and courts reporter has won $180,000 in damages from the newspaper in a world-first court settlement after suffering psychological injuries from covering some of Victoria’s most serious and gruesome crimes. In a scathing judgement, the Victorian County Court found that The Age failed in its duty of care for the journalist as she was repeatedly exposed to trauma and increasingly showing signs of psychological injury.

The journalist, who was not named in the judgement, worked at The Age between 2003 and 2013, reporting on the crime round during the gangland wars, winning awards for her work, but during a period where redundancies at the paper were regular. During the trial, she told the court she attended 32 murder scenes, and after a stint on the sports desk was moved to the Supreme Court round where she reported on cases including murders and crimes against children with graphic evidence presented in court. She also received phone calls from people threatening suicide during that period.

Her lawyer Bree Knoester, partner at Adviceline Injury Lawyers, told Crikey she had been working on litigation of this kind since 2010 in an attempt to get media companies to accept their responsibility for journalists exposed to trauma as part of their day-to-day job. “I’ve worked with reporters in this area all around the world, so to have this judgement that sets out what we’ve been saying for many years is an endorsement of that message,” she said. Knoester, who does work with the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, said this was the first successful court action of its kind in the world.

She said last year’s trial had been enormously stressful for her client who’d given evidence over five days, and her well-being had deteriorated while the matter was before the court. “Thankfully the result has bolstered her and given her some closure,” she said. “She was doing her dream job [at The Age], so the fact that she had to give that up speaks to how serious that injury was … it’s something that will be with her forever, even if her symptoms improve. What she’s lost can’t be replaced.”

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Judge Chris O’Neill found that The Age had failed in its duty of care for the journalist, which had reports and evidence available to it about the risk of psychiatric injury to journalists exposed to trauma, as well as signs, symptoms and complaints from the plaintiff. He found that she had told her managers she was using the Employee Assistance Program, and was not coping with the trauma of her role. He found that by 2007, it was relatively obvious that the journalist was showing symptoms of an underlying psychological disorder, but it was not until 2009 that she was moved to a sports reporting beat.

She told the court she’d been enjoying that role and was starting to feel better when, in 2010, then-deputy editor Mark Baker encouraged her to move to the position of Supreme Court reporter when another journalist resigned. She refused twice, but eventually accepted. “She ought never to have been transferred to that area, given her previously expressed inability to deal with the material she was exposed to as a crime reporter,” O’Neill wrote in his judgement. “Little, if any, regard was paid to her welfare.”

O’Neill found that The Age should have provided trauma training to all new journalists and cadets and for senior staff in awareness of trauma, and more attention paid to literature and a risk management review suggesting a peer support program. He also found that, despite The Age’s arguments otherwise in court, the journalist was not in a position to ask for another role, or to be too forthright about her trauma, given the culture of the newsroom:

I am satisfied that the culture at The Age was such that the reporting of psychological symptoms and distress was not encouraged. This was for a number of reasons. No doubt, it was a competitive environment and a stressful workplace. To express symptoms, of for example anxiety or depression, was likely to be seen as a weakness and an indication an employee was not able to carry out the assigned work. In an environment where redundancies were a regular event, it was not an easy thing to be open and frank about the trauma to which younger journalists were exposed and their reaction to it.

O’Neill found that while there were no rules in place that said she could not be transferred, it was not an easy request to make while so many jobs were being made redundant. Likewise, he said the journalist couldn’t be blamed for not seeking earlier intervention.

The journalist has suffered significant and disabling symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) over time, including depression and anxiety, with panic attacks. Her sleep is still affected, and while she has returned to work in media and communications, she has lost her career as a journalist. “Her days as a journalist with The Age, to which she aspired and at an early point loved, are lost, in particular in the area of crime reporting,” O’Neill said. “She is significantly psychologically scarred because of her work at The Age, and that is likely to remain in the future.”

Knoester said she didn’t think there would be a flood of similar cases lodged. “We know there are working journalists who have PTSD who have WorkCover claims, but there’s still enormous reluctance to bring claims against their employers, there is still stigma associated with it,” she said. “And it often feels like a David and Goliath battle for one person to take on these big companies like News Corp or Fairfax [now Nine] … but this is at least something that they can relate to.”

She said that there was still room for improvement in most newsrooms, which tended to leave out employee welfare while trying to put out the news under increasingly difficult circumstances, even while they know there is risk to their journalists.

“We knew media organisations knew of the risk of psychological injury to journalists for what they do for their job. There are resources and training out there and they still choose not to use them,” Knoester said. “We hope [the judgement] will cause those media companies to implement those training courses, and to reflect on their responsibilities — how many people have to be injured or suffer before these companies take responsibility?”.

Nine, publisher of The Age, would not comment on the case but a spokesman said they accepted the ruling. “We value all our employees and recognise there is the potential that journalists may be exposed to traumatic circumstances through their reporting and have a number of processes in place to help support them. We are also in the process of extending and aligning our existing trauma training programs for newsrooms across our newly merged business.”

Are newsrooms doing enough to mitigate the potential risk of PTSD to staff? Write to boss@crikey.com.au with your full name and let us know your thoughts.