In our field there are three main modalities for taking the record or captioning. There is stenography, voice writing, and digital recording. Stenography is using a chorded stenotype and computer dictionary to instantaneously take down and transcribe the spoken word. Digital recording is all about letting a microphone pick up the audio and having somebody transcribe it after the fact. Sometimes digital recording proponents insist that they can run the audio through automatic speech recognition (ASR) systems to “assist the transcriber.” I’ve been pretty open about my feelings there.
There are also nonprofits representing each modality. NCRA is all-in for steno. NVRA admits stenographers, but in my mind is really more for voice writers, and rightfully so. AAERT is pro-recording. ATSP is pro-transcriber to the extent it has any court reporting industry presence. There are others like Global Alliance or STTI that claim to be for all three modalities, but I’ve always gotten a “jack of all trades, master of none” vibe from those types of associations.
From information available to me, I believe that NCRA is by far the largest organization and in the best position to handle the court reporter shortage, but NVRA does provide an incredibly important role in certifying voice writers. One common problem in the early years of voice writing, which some New York attorneys still hold against them, was that occasionally they could be heard through the mask. Even now, when there is a lot of sibilance, one can infrequently hear a voice writer through the mask. Modern certification requires that the voice writer is able to perform without being heard, and a two-strike policy is employed in which the first time a writer is heard during a test they are tapped on the shoulder. The second time they are heard, they are disqualified. Voice writing tests, like ours, give the voice writer one shot at getting their “voice notes” correct. They are not allowed to repeat or review the test audio. This kind of testing is important and represents the quality standards this industry needs. NVRA confirmed its testing policy in an 8/11/21 e-mail to me.
Most reporters know that voice writing is, at its core, speaking into a Stenomask or other voice mask and allowing automatic speech recognition to assist in the transcription of what’s said. In some settings, a voice writer may use an open mic. Some stenographic reporters may be surprised to learn that realtime voice writing is superior to digital reporting and general ASR use. In general ASR use, the microphone takes input from everyone and the computer system gives its best guess based on the training data it has. In a study from last year, it was shown that that technology’s accuracy could drop as low as 25% dependent on who is speaking. Realtime voice writing, by comparison, is a trained operator, the voice writer, often speaking into a closed microphone, and utilizing ASR that has been trained to that writer’s voice. In the best of circumstances, that ASR can reliably put out highly accurate transcriptions of the voice writer’s voice — as high as 98%. Many realtime voice writers utilize Dragon by Nuance connected to their preferred CAT software. I guesstimate that Nuance has the best ASR tech, and there’s no coincidence that despite all the other ASR vendors out there, Nuance is the one Microsoft wanted to buy. This lead in technology comes from the system being trained to understand the specific user or voice writer.
One important distinction is the difference between realtime voice writers and voice writers that speak into the mask and have someone else transcribe and do the work. This is very similar to the divide in stenographic reporting where some scopists report having to fill in huge chunks of information missed by the court reporter. A realtime voice writer, like a realtime stenographer, does not have to provide realtime services, but they do maintain the equipment and capability to do so.
The knowledge and preparedness of the voice writer is integral to the integrity of the record produced. Think of all the glitches and anomalies in stenographic CAT software. Think about how reporters create macros and dictionary workarounds every day to deal with them. As an easy example, my software does not like certain punctuation marks to be together. Early in my career, I worked out that placing a backslash between the two marks and then deleting it would override the software’s programming to delete punctuation. Similarly, voice writers have to deal with the complexities of the ASR system, the CAT software, and how they interact in order to overcome word boundary and formatting issues.
The understanding and maintenance of a voice writer’s equipment is also paramount. How the computer “hears” a writer’s voice in one microphone can be vastly different than another microphone. Different masks can be given different training configurations to enhance the ASR transcription. Voice writers are speaking into a mask, and where saliva or liquid gets into the mask it can alter what the computer hears. The competent voice writer monitors their realtime and keeps redundant equipment in case of an equipment failure, including extra masks and multiple audio backups of their “voice notes.” As someone who keeps two stenotypes in case one decides to die mid-trial, I admire the voice writers that take the time to ensure the show goes on in the event of computer problems.
Like us, there are many briefs or triggers voice writers use. The key difference is that they must speak the “steno.” The same way we must come up with a stroke for designating a speaker, they must come up with a voice command. The same way that stenographers must differentiate the word “period” from the punctuation symbol of a period, voice writers historically had to create differentiations. For example, in years gone by, they might have had to say “peerk” for the symbol and “period” for the word. Modern ASR systems are sometimes able to differentiate the word versus the mark without any special command or input from the voice writer! Again, the experience and ability to predict how the software will interpret what is said is an important skill for the realtime voice writer.
The obvious question arises as to why this blog tends to be silent on voice writing. There’s no overt hostility there and deep admiration for the people at the top of the voice writing modality of record taking. Simply put, I truly believe that stenographic reporting is better and will open more doors for students. That’s colored by my own experiences. As of today, voice writers are not allowed to work in my court and be in my civil service title. We can argue about whether they should be allowed, but the simple fact is that New York courts today tend to utilize stenographic reporting or digital recording. It’s easy to see that the qualified voice writer is a far better choice than the digital recording, but I couldn’t say to a student “get into voice writing! You’ll have the same opportunities as I do!”
I also have to present a warning to voice writers and stenographers. I have seen many of us fall into the mindset of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” We are much closer to each other than either modality is to digital reporting for the simple reason that we like our jobs. Digital reporting proponents have made little effort to hide that their ultimate goal is to offshore the jobs to Manila, Kenya, India, or wherever they can. Digital reporting proponents want to pay stenographers and voice writers less than half of what they’re worth. Digital reporting proponents don’t even respect their own digital reporters, which is why I’ve suggested those people join the stenographic legion.
There is a tumultuous history between stenographic court reporters and voice writers. I’ve been told by multiple NCRA members that when an effort was made to include voice writers about two decades ago, there was heavy backlash and even some harassment that occurred against those that were pro-integration. That was the climate of yesterday. While it seems unlikely that there will be formal alliance, inclusion, or cooperation, the separation we see today is not the same violent rejection of voice writers from the early 2000s. The civility of NCRA’s 2021 business meeting showed that court reporters are ready to disagree without belligerence and keep our industry moving forward. This is more akin to why the North American Olive Oil Association probably doesn’t partner much with the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s. Olive oil and fish oil are both fine oils, but every second and cent spent advocating for one could be spent advocating for the other. It doesn’t make much sense to divide the time and resources. That’s where we are today. What the future holds for tomorrow, I can only imagine.
A big thank you to everyone that made this article possible, up to and including the NVRA. One source of my information was the esteemed Tori Pittman. Trained in both stenography and voice writing, Tori gave me a full demonstration of voice writing and agreed to speak at length about voice writing. See the full interview below!