Sunday, March 20, 2011

When do deadlines really become deadly?

Years ago, I watched a cocky young reporter have a meltdown while covering a major election. The clock was ticking, editors were hovering and he realized, suddenly and sickeningly, that no coursework had prepared him for pressure like this.

He started to cry. Then he started to hyperventilate. It wasn't pretty.

And this was when newspapers were relatively fat and happy, when seats were filled and shareholders were content. Not like now, when executives have sliced and diced newsrooms, leaving only the few, the brave and the very, very tired.

I was thinking about that the other day as I read David Callahan's piece in The Huffington Post, one that analyzed the case of Sari Horwitz - the Washington Post reporter recently suspended for plagiarism that occurred while she was covering the Arizona shootings.

See, Horwitz isn't some young hotshot. She's a Pulitzer Prize winner. And in her apology, Horwitz mentioned the stress of the tight deadlines she was under. But plagiarism? This is ... worrisome.

I don't know Horwitz; I don't know anything about the situation. But I know deadlines. I know that feeling of rising panic and the power it takes to quell it. I still remember how my heart would start beating faster and how I would count backwards to calm myself and slow things down. I know the feeling of how everyone is counting on you and how you better not screw up.

I don't work in a newsroom anymore. I can't even imagine how tough it is today - with staffs that are skeletal and expectations that are still sky-high.

I would never condone plagiarism, obviously. It's inexcusable. In Death on Deadline, plagiarism and the power of information are a big part of the story. That's fiction, of course. But I have to wonder if the issues caused by tight deadlines and corporate cutting might just be bleeding into real life.

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