Journalists, we need to talk about court reporting.
Court reporting? What’s that? Court reporting traditionally refers to stenographic reporting, where somebody is taking down verbatim notes on a stenotype. We do this in legal proceedings as well as broadcast captioning, and believe it or not, our keyboard design, invented in 1911, is the best technology in voice recognition and taking down the spoken word today. Sounds incredible, right? But look at the airplane. It started out in 1903 looking something like this:
We all know what happened. The design got better and today we have airliners that can fly hundreds of people at once. Same with the camera of the 1800s that became the compact and ubiquitous technology we have today in so many devices. Very much the same happened with our stenotype. In fact, I have a handy guide here. Feel free to use that middle image in any article you want.
We started off with old timey machines where you tap the key and it punches the ink into the paper. We evolved into an era of Dictaphones and floppy disks where we’d narrate our notes to be typed up by somebody else. These days we’re packing laptops attached to minicomputers. We’re always asked “why don’t you just record it?” Truth is we’ve had that capability for a really long time. We go beyond that and have the ability to transcribe what we’ve “recorded” in record times.
We have a real perception problem in our field. There’s this ongoing push from tech sellers to come in and say our technology is old and that automation is on the way. The problem? Tech journalists, publications, or analysts often eat it up and publish it right away. I always point to this October 2020 article as a great example. It literally depicts an old-fashioned stenographer phasing out into computer code under the headline “Will court reporting undergo a pandemic shift?” It goes on to publish some quotes from Verbit and Veritext that point to things changing/evolving/shifting. The messaging is really clear. “We have the technology. Why do we need court reporters?” They term court reporter criticism as “resistance.”
A lie is being sold. This isn’t something that takes heavy investigation to figure out. When asked about the field in that article, Veritext’s CTO was quoted as saying “there will be no choice but to move forward with well-proven audio and transcription technologies and services to meet the need, and we expect to see rapid adoption there.” Meanwhile, when asked for a quote for Stenonymous, Veritext said with regard to technology “…it will not take the place of the stenographer…” They’re not alone. Tom Livne of Verbit has been quoted saying our world is not yet digitized when I just showed you that it is digitized and it has been for decades. In series A funding for Verbit, claims of 99 percent accuracy were thrown around. In series B funding, it was said that technology would not replace the human. All these automation proponents are pretty quick to dismiss automation. Could it be that automation of speech transcription is just not that simple?
It would be fair enough if it was just my word against theirs. But there are outside observers that have looked at the situation and concluded all the same things. In a May 2020 article from Scientific American, journalist Wade Roush noted that speech recognition simply was not perfect and might never be. He pointed to Microsoft’s claim in 2016 of 96 percent accuracy, better than human transcribers, and noted there have been few improvements since. In the Stanford study “Racial disparities in automated speech recognition” it was noted that automatic speech recognition was 80 percent accurate on white speakers, 65 percent accurate on black speakers, and “worse” on the AAVE dialect. “Worse” meant 25 to 50 percent accurate. So here we are taking stenographic reporter accuracy, certified with 5 percent total errors or fewer and comparing it to a word error rate between 20 percent and 75 percent.
But do we really need accurate court transcripts and good captions for captioning consumers? Nobody cares who this hurts as long as it makes investors happy, right? Sadly, there’s not much evidence to show that it’ll even do that. Much of the financial data for court reporting is hidden through private companies or paywall research data. When I examined VIQ Solutions, a company that recently acquired Net Transcripts and is ostensibly part of the “record and transcribe” crowd, I pointed out there’s plenty of revenue there, but net losses. In news regarding Verbit’s acquisition of VITAC, it was stated that revenue was in the millions and cash flow was positive, which means it’s likely profits are low or non-existent. At the risk of sounding like a cynic, I think it’s very clear, if there was profit and a decent rate of return they would be unreserved in telling us that. Like other AI ventures, there’s probably just a slow burn of money. So every time a writer jumps aboard the “technology” train without consulting anybody that actually works in the field or doing a little research, it’s burying the truth a little deeper under this false perception and really hurting a vibrant, viable field that really needs people. We’re not so different. The tech sellers are coming for your job too, and it’s just as hilarious and embarrassing.
The other issue we have is that we know you can figure this stuff out. When our job is up for grabs, there’s a kind of jubilant repetition of the word “disruption.” Meanwhile, when it’s a job that has some sense of importance or power, like a judge, journalists begin explaining things. Take this article on Chinese holographic AI judges, where the author makes sure to point out there are differences in American and Chinese law that may make this more plausible, as well as explaining that the “AI” is only as good as its dataset. This is a big problem, because the companies invested in “AI” have zero accountability. If someone brings up issues with a technology’s output being racist or sexist, they are summarily fired and their opinion swept under the rug. In my field, at the very least, every member of the public is entitled to make a complaint about a court reporter that violates our ethical codes. That’s on top of any legal remedies that may be available or justified in the event a court reporter acts irresponsibly! If you can’t get it right when you report on it, these companies are not going to correct you when you’re wrong in their favor.
All we are asking for is some fairness in the way our field is reported on in the news. I’ve often joked that advocating for stenographic court reporting is a lot like the children’s story Horton Hears A Who. We’re here but we’re unseen and unheard. We’re in danger of being boiled by big money and tall tales. Those of us that speak up can face a lot of ridicule or be cut short. Take my appearance on VICE News about the Testifying While Black study. Here’s an important topic that deserves headlines, namely, addressing disparate outcomes based on the dialect that someone speaks. I was filmed for about two hours, and Taylor Jones and his people were, as I understand it, filmed close to nine hours. Nobody expected a ten-hour special, but this topic got fifteen minutes. Court reporters took some serious heat in the news because we scored 80 percent accuracy in African American Vernacular English dialect. Every single news source I’ve seen has missed or excluded pilot study 1, where regular people scored 40 percent, and pilot study 2, where lawyers scored 60 percent. VICE cut me talking about the pilot studies and how people who really care about record accuracy need to join our field. You have a story here where court reporters are twice as good as the average person at hearing and transcribing this AAVE dialect that we get no training in, and that got warped into many variations of “court reporters don’t understand black people.” That’s a concept mired in ignorance. The story itself acknowledges not all black people speak AAVE, and yet the headline and lede rips on us despite the fact that we’re the most likely ones in the room to understand AAVE. I cannot imagine such an irresponsible word game. It’s almost like publishing an article with the headline “Journalists May Be Reporting Black People’s Stories Wrong” just because they might ostensibly fit into the category of “regular people.” But I can’t imagine that anyone would ever lump groups of people together and make broad, false headlines just for clicks. Oh, wait —
Even in a pretty amazing article about social justice where I got to offer some input, the accuracy of us versus others ended up not making the cut. I like the author a lot, but it’s pretty clear that somewhere along the way a decision was made to exclude the possibility that we’re hearing people better than anyone else in the room. Not much different from when Max Curry was quoted as saying digital reporting was too risky, but there was hardly any explanation as to why, despite a field of nearly 30,000 people and data that suggests recording proceedings achieves no real cost reduction and no efficiency gains. See what I’m saying? Sometimes it’s worse than simply not publishing anything from us. Sometimes it’s cherry picking what we say to make it look like both sides are represented when they simply aren’t or that a topic was explained when it simply wasn’t.
I know that this perceived unfairness is a result of many factors and that some are outside your control. The drive to get people to read strongly encourages clickbait journalism. Editors and outlets can decide to cut journalists’ work if it doesn’t adhere to a particular narrative or standard. The fact that court reporting and machine shorthand stenography is a fairly niche skill adds to the dilemma. Industry outsiders are not going to know there are national, state, and nonprofit databases to find court reporters for interviews and demonstrations. There are a myriad of issues that coalesce to create the situation I’m describing. But we really need some attention on these issues. We create the legal record for so many lawsuits and criminal prosecutions. We broadcast (good) captions so that the deaf can have access. The inadequacy of alternatives cannot be understated. But the average reporter age is 55 now, and to continue our good work we’ll need the media to be unafraid of publishing the truth. Help us attract people who will carry on this service for generations. We need the media to stop republishing the shortage forecast from 8 years ago and point people towards all the resources that we have built since then to help people find this career, such as Open Steno, Project Steno, and NCRA A to Z.
And to the next publication that discusses the $27 billion voice recognition market: We are here! We are here! We are here!
A reader suggested I define AAVE better in this article. I feel it better to point to the work of the linguist Dr. Taylor Jones if you want to learn more about this dialect.