Outreach Webinar by Project Steno – June 6, 2021

The New York State Court Reporters Association is promoting Project Steno’s June 6 outreach webinar, as told by NYSCRA’s Transcript Weekly, posted earlier today by NYSCRA Social Media Committee Chair Marina Dubson. Though stenographers have made great strides in recruitment and introducing people to this field through efforts like NCRA A to Z, Open Steno, and Project Steno, there remains a need to get word out to high school students and staff that court reporting is a viable and vibrant career that young people should give serious consideration. Resources will be provided, and it can all only be seen as a wonderful complement to the resources already published by the National Court Reporters Association. If you’ve got some time to attend at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time this Sunday, definitely consider registering today!

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1 in 4 Court Reporting Companies May Be Unprofitable

In my Collective Power of Stenographers post, we explored how court reporters collectively out-earn every company in business today. In Aggressive Marketing — Growth or Flailing, we took a look at VIQ Solutions, parent of Net Transcripts, and saw how a transcription company could be making millions in revenue but be unprofitable. This all set me down a path of learning about zombie companies, companies that are not making enough to meet debt obligations, or just barely enough to make interest payments. You can watch Kerry Grinkmeyer describe how that happens here. This isn’t very rare. A Bloomberg analysis of 3,000 publicly-traded companies found one in five were zombies. The main takeaway? Companies can make lots of money and still be taking losses.

I had the pleasure of looking through the Kentley Insights June 2019 Court Reporting and Stenotype Services market research report. I do want to be upfront about it: I have some reservations about the methodologies and some of the reporting. Very much like the Ducker Report, as best I can tell, it’s based off a sampling of respondents from in or around the field. There are parts of the report that are arguably a little incomplete or unclear. For example, being industry experts, we all know the vast majority of the work is done by independent contractors. Independent contractor isn’t a term that appears in the report. Unsurprisingly, when we reach the job pay bands and employment section, it says there isn’t detailed data on the industry and compares us to the telephone call centers industry. So this report is not a must-have for court reporters, but it does have some interesting insights.

Those remarks aside, when we get to the profitability section of the report, we get to see something pretty striking. Based on their data, more than 1 in 4 court reporting companies are not profitable. Average net income as a percent of revenue for the ones that are profitable? About 9.3 percent. For the ones that are not profitable, a loss of about 9.6 percent. And a pretty chart that says as much.

I never want to see the term capital benchmarks again.

On the following page, there’s a forecast for operating expenses and industry revenue. That’s summed up in another pretty chart.

This was pre-pandemic, by the way.

If we look at the trends here, it’s pretty clear that the forecast is for expense growth to eclipse and outpace revenue growth. If that keeps up, the unprofitable companies are going to be looking at bigger losses year after year. Given all the information I have today, I surmise that the smaller court reporting companies are the more profitable ones and the bigger ones are the ones struggling. There are sure to be some outliers, like small court reporting shops that go bankrupt and leave their independent contractors unpaid. But overall, the smaller companies can’t afford to remain unprofitable for very long, so it’s probably the “big dogs” eating that 10 percent loss. If I’m right, that may also mean the push to go digital is the dying breath of companies that can’t figure out any other way forward. In February, I wrote “…we only lose if we do not compete.” That is becoming more evident with time and data. It is a great time for the stenographic reporter to open up shop and be a part of the 74%.

Speaking of data, if everybody that read this blog donated $1.50, we’d have enough money to stay ad-free for the next two decades. To all donors we’ve had to date, thank you so much, put your wallets away. To everybody else, check out this cool song from M.I.A. about taking your money.

Does Stenonymous Spend More On Steno Ads Than US Legal?

When you care about something, how difficult is it to do? I can only go by my own experiences here. I hate calling lawyers. A family member got fired and there was potentially an attached legal issue. I was on the phone chain calling lawyers for them until I found one that could speak to the family member that same day. I don’t have any desire to be a public speaker, but I figured it out when I thought our profession might need it. US Legal, by all appearances, cares a lot about attracting digital reporters and strengthening AAERT.

I would love to talk to you too, senior recruiter.

In fairness, US Legal does have a reporter corner and a few spots on their site where they specifically mention stenography. But we have to look at the totality of the circumstances to decide whether this is out of genuine care or whether it’s a facade to point at and say “look, we care!” It’s been known for a while that US Legal is backing digital reporting. They bought out Stenotrain, made some announcements to look good, and killed it. Now reporters are getting offers to join USL as long as reporters drop the stenotype and fall in line with whatever junk USL wants to peddle to consumers. Again, I have to look at my own experiences, and when I don’t advertise very much, my site can get as little as 500 views a year.

What a year that was. Am I right?

Meanwhile, when I spend a few hundred bucks on an ad, I get the word steno in front of thousands of people.

A seven-nation army couldn’t hold me back.

Hopefully the point is pretty clear. If and when they cry shortage and say they just can’t fill the seats, it’s a lie. According to Owler, they have a revenue of over $100 million. They’re taking that money and betting it against stenographic court reporters. There are national, state, and nonprofit databases of reporters. This is a game to take our relatively high-paying jobs and organized, educated workforce, and replace them with low-paying jobs and people who won’t have the same ethics culture we do.

It’s a game I need some help winning. All corporations are made up of people. Educate those people on the truth, and just maybe they’ll realize they’re risking everything by backing the losing horse. If you happen to get a message from one of the recruiters working on this, please don’t blast them, but let them know what’s happening. Chances are good they have no idea.

I do wish him luck and success. But I also hope he finds a better employer.

Vote Yes! NCRA 2021 Proposed Bylaw Amendments

The National Court Reporters Association gave members notice of proposed bylaws amendments recently. If you haven’t given these proposals some thought recently, and you intend to vote during convention time, then please take the time to consider them now. I’ll give a summary of each and what I see myself doing, and why, come voting time.

Amendment 1 – Fellows of the Academy of Professional Reporters

What’s the deal?
The proposal amends the requirements to become part of the Fellows of the Academy of Professional Reporters. The new language mostly points to needing to have stronger ties to NCRA to be a part of FAPR.

My takeaway:
I usually lean toward inclusion, but I also see validity in fellows having close NCRA ties. I believe I’m going to vote yes.

Amendment 2 – Stenographic Captioning and Stenographic Captioners

What’s the deal?
Stick the words “stenographic” captioning and “stenographic captioners” in areas where the bylaws say “stenographic reporting” or “stenographic reporter.” It’s making it a point to mention reporters AND captioners.

My takeaway:
I have always found the need to differentiate ourselves as a bit silly and the term reporter inclusive of who we are and what we do (steno). As an example, if someone walks into a room and greets a group of colleagues, “hey ladies,” I have two choices, I can huff, puff, and yell “I AM A MAN,” demanding that everyone acknowledge the difference, or I can roll with it and say hello. That said, the differentiation and explicit mentioning of captioners makes some of them feel good. It makes them feel included. It makes them feel respected as having a distinct and important skill. I am voting yes on this one without hesitation!

Amendment 3 – Holding Elective Office

What’s the deal?
In full disclosure, I am one of the people that proposed this amendment. This amendment would make it so all participating members who are stenographic reporters can hold elective office in the NCRA. As of today, you can pay dues and vote on the future of the organization if you are not a certified reporter, but you cannot hold elective office. If this amendment passes, any stenographic reporter that has been a member for five years would be able to hold elective office.

My takeaway:
I respect certification very much. I became an RPR shortly after proposing this amendment. But I feel it’s important for us to acknowledge that certifications do not necessarily make a person a leader. The bylaws committee has a little blurb against this stating anyone could claim to be a reporter, join, and run for office, and that much is true, but this idea that someone would join for a minimum of five years and then win an election without anyone else pointing out their complete lack of history is one I just can’t get behind. Take the leap, allow uncertified people to hold office, and open up this association to a pool of leaders it would otherwise not have. About forty percent of the association is not certified. It’s a reality that it’s time to address and tell all stenographic reporters that this association values them enough to give them a seat at the decision makers’ table if they win it fair and square. Any uncertified reporter that could win an election against a certified reporter has political savvy that we frankly need in leadership, so please vote yes.

Amendment 4 – Eligibility to Vote

What’s the deal?
In full disclosure, I am one of the people that proposed this amendment. In 2019 there was a membership dues increase. People that were not at the annual business meeting physically were not allowed to vote on it. This amendment would allow everyone to vote via e-mail.

My takeaway:
The dues increase was in line with inflation and completely warranted, but by limiting the pool of people that could vote for it, it made people really mad and gave the impression that leadership would do whatever it wanted and limit who had a say when it was convenient. In reality, it was done that way out of precedent. This amendment will force NCRA leadership to communicate more about dues increases, but I have a lot of confidence that members will vote for increases that keep the association healthy and strong. Please vote yes so that all voting members have a say on dues increases.

Amendment 5 – Conflict of Interest

What’s the deal?
In full disclosure, I am one of the people that proposed this amendment. This amendment would put the requirement for a conflict of interest policy in our bylaws and gives the board full authority to determine the scope of language and enforcement.

My takeaway:
Some time ago, Jim Cuddahy was NCRA’s Executive Director. That’s when the Ducker report was commissioned and we had a study done on our court reporter shortage. Fast forward, Jim Cuddahy is a part of the Speech To Text Institute and, in my view, one of many digital reporting proponents using the shortage to say “there are not enough court reporters, we must record it.” It makes it look like NCRA was used to do something that was later weaponized against members. People are angry about that, and NCRA has taken social media flak for it despite there being nothing NCRA could really do. One of the questions that floated up on social media was “WHY ISN’T THERE A POLICY?” Only when this proposal was made was I made aware there was a COI policy, and that’s the point, letting members know in big, bold letters there is one.

There’s a blurb about how counsel interprets this amendment to be illegal, but the association already has a conflict of interest policy. Honestly, I’m stunned. We have a conflict of interest policy, but putting the requirement for a COI policy in our bylaws would be illegal? Baloney. In full fairness, to the extent a COI policy can be viewed as a non-compete agreement, it could be illegal, but that’s why this amendment gives the board power over the language and enforcement. Every single board member and the NCRA have a duty to follow the law and they are required to interpret this amendment in a way that follows the law. Again, it is stunning to me that for purposes of proposal, everyone seems to be assuming it must be interpreted in the most unfavorable possible light. I am hoping that you will all see this as I do and vote yes.

Amendment 6 – Virtual Annual Business Meetings

What’s the deal?
This amendment will allow NCRA to have virtual annual business meetings.

My takeaway:
I think this modernizes our bylaws to help us operate even when force majeure would not apply. It’s an obvious yes.

Amendment 7 – Integration of CLVS as Participating Members

What’s the deal?
Certified Legal Video Specialists will be allowed to vote in the association, but will not be able to hold elective office.

My takeaway:
It seems unfair to be a certification body for people that have zero input. NCRA advisory opinion 44 points to the verbatim reporter and video specialist roles not mixing, so there’s no reason to think this is some attempt to undermine the association’s goals or membership. This is a chance to show CLVS members that we value their certs without losing any steno board seats. I’ll vote yes.

Final Thoughts

Associations have a duty to follow their bylaws and the law. The votes we make here dictate to NCRA how it must conduct itself in the future. I’m not against anyone that votes against me here. These votes are unlikely to make or break the association, but they will shift perceptions. On amendment 3, we have a shot at telling reporters without certs we want them to be active in the association, not just collect their money and votes. On amendment 4, we have a shot at telling voting members they deserve a say in dues increases whether or not they can physically make it to the business meeting. On amendment 5, we have a shot at telling all members yes, we have a conflict of interest policy. We have a shot at adding value to membership. Value leads to growth. In the interest of growing our national association, I am voting yes, and I hope you do too.

Court Reporters Speak Up For The Record On Future Trials

The New York State Unified Court System commissioned the Future Trials Working Group to look at many possibilities for use of technology in the courtroom. In April 2021, the Future Trials Working Group released a report with recommendations for the court system. On page 13 of that report, there was a section regarding the possibility of automatic transcription, and specifically automatic trial transcription.

The report had a strange view on the possibility of automatic transcription. In one area, it noted “the most foreseeable endgame in the evolution of trial transcription likely is full automation.” In another part just down the page, it stated there were “…obstacles to the use of such technology on a fully automated or even predominantly automated basis for the foreseeable future”, going on to note “…automated transcription — at least at its current stage — could threaten access to justice if widely employed.” The most foreseeable endgame is automatic, but in the foreseeable future, the technology is unreliable. This is, in my view, a strange view to take. The report goes on to recommend that the court system study outside vendor offerings for automated/remote transcription or translation.

Court reporters and the people that represent them did not sit in silence. A response was prepared by the New York State Court Reporters Association and the Association of Surrogate’s and Supreme Court Reporters. Several unions supported the response, and the full letter and list of supporting unions can be read below. My personal favorite quote? “…use of automated speech technology for trial transcripts, by all available information, would not threaten access to justice, it would implode it.” We have, as a profession, put our foot down and said “we are here to guard the record, we have been guarding the record for over a century, and we will do all we can to educate the system on why other technologies are inadequate.” State and national association membership has never been more important. Union membership has never been more important. When you contribute to these organizations, you give them strength to advocate for you.

In full disclosure, I did contribute to the letter. But without the work of ASSCR President Eric Allen and NYSCRA President Joshua Edwards, this would not have been possible. Again, it all points to the importance of association and union membership. Members empower leaders. Leaders fight for an advocate on the behalf of members. It’s a symbiotic relationship that, if you are not currently a part of, you certainly want to be.

MGR Interviewed on the Treatment of Reporters

This month I had a chance to sit down with Marc Russo of MGR Reporting. Marc’s a working reporter and business owner. We got to hit a lot of topics in this video, including Marc’s history in the field, how reporter skill relates to reporter treatment, and how scheduling ahead can help reporting firms fill their clients’ needs.

Using Marc’s words, it’s about treating reporters like people instead of numbers.

Don’t take my word for it, check out the interview here!

Literal v Readable, A Primer on Transcribing What We Hear

Very often on stenographer social media, we get questions about whether something should be reflected as said, sic’d, or “corrected.” There has been plenty of discussion over the years on whether to correct lawyers’ or witnesses’ speaking in transcription. There are a lot of ways to take this conversation, and in the spirit of keeping this fun, I’ll hit the highlights.

Necessary in this discussion is: “What is my transcript?” The bulk of freelance work goes to deposition reporting. When a case is filed and initial motions to dismiss are decided, if the case is not dismissed, it moves to discovery. Discovery is where the parties exchange information that they have so that when it is time for trial, there are few or no “surprise” pieces of evidence. At the conclusion of discovery, the parties can ask the court to decide the case as a matter of law if there are no factual questions in dispute. If the case cannot be resolved as a matter of law, it goes on to trial. An integral part of the discovery phase is deposition testimony. Parties have an opportunity to question the other side’s witnesses under oath. Witness testimony is evidence, and the evidence unveiled during the discovery phase is ultimately what helps parties settle cases, courts decide whether a matter can be decided as a matter of law, impeach witnesses at trial, and appellate courts review the decisions of the trial court. In America, the testimony of one witness can convict beyond a reasonable doubt. Your transcript is the verbatim record of what occurred during the testimony, and again, that testimony is powerful evidence.

Unsurprisingly, there are many different takes on what “verbatim” means. We can all read the dictionary definition: “in exactly the same words that were used originally.” But court reporting and transcription are service industries, and there have been many times where court reporters are pressured by a client or company to change that verbatim record in some small way. In my view, that pressure gave life to a lot of court reporter conventions that are daunting for students, new reporters, and even veteran reporters to master. For example, as a young reporter, I was told to take out false starts, never ever report “um,” and to even physically remove strikes and withdrawns from deposition transcripts. Now, wherever you are, the laws in your jurisdiction supersede my advice or opinion, but I am going to share the way I look at each in the hopes that this can be shared with others who struggle with these. For sure, anything I write can and will be debated, but debate can only improve our field.

Removing False Starts

This was drilled into me by agencies as a young reporter. “Always remove false starts.” It’s still being pushed on young reporters today, to the point where some may not even be taking them down. Frankly, I see this as bad advice. The essential factors for a reporter to consider in the way something is transcribed are context and readability. Does my transcription of the verbatim notes change the context of this testimony? Does my transcription degrade the readability of this testimony? In my view, removing most false starts will not actually change context, and they will improve readability. As an example:

“Q. Are you — did you go to the store?”

“A. Yes.”

It would be difficult to argue that removing the words “are you” and simply changing the question to “Did you go to the store?” hurts the context. Nothing has changed. And so to the extent removing false starts is looked at favorably in our field, I get it. But what about when it would change context?

“Q. Are you — I mean, did you go — did you go to the — sorry. Did you, if you remember, go to the store?”

“A. I’m sorry. I don’t understand your question.”

What happens in a world where a young reporter, told that they must remove false starts, removes all that and changes it to “Did you, if you remember, go to the store?” The context is unequivocally changed. Verbatim, it’s very clear that the question was not clear. There was a lot of extra “stuff” in there. If such a question is cleaned up, it makes the witness look like they’re not paying attention or unintelligent. Removing false starts can hurt the context and stop legal professionals from doing their job. Imagine that the deposition is taken by a young associate and the trial lawyer is a seasoned vet who did not sit on the deposition. Reading a “cleaned up” version, the trial lawyer might believe the witness is a bumbling mess. When that witness gets on the stand and is given clear questions, it’s going to be a surprise for that trial lawyer. So even where law may allow the removal of false starts, it’s a decision the court reporting practitioner should make using their own sound judgment, and not on the whims of an agency or client. You may also want to see NCRA Advisory Opinion 4 to the extent it touches on this topic.

Never Ever Report Um

Again, I see the reporting of “um” as a matter of context and readability. Let’s say that you’re taking a motion argument, and it looks something like:

“MS. ATTORNEY: Um, um, um, um, um, um, um, um, um — your Honor, based on the hearing that we just had, there is no set of facts under which the people may prevail. I therefore ask you to dismiss this case in the interest of justice.”

Does it really change anything if you don’t report the ums in that specific instance? Nope. And this isn’t a hypothetical. I recall a situation just like this, where the attorney had, without question, made the point they were trying to make, and then became very flustered asking the court to make a decision. But what if the situation was a trial situation?

“Q. Did you see Mr. Vanhorten shoot Mr. Gorfasi?”

“A. Um, well — um, yes.”

If you transcribe that sentence as “well, yes” the context is destroyed. The witness seems crystal clear on what they saw. Those ums have a kiloton of context that transform what is being said. I’m not here to say anyone who omits an um is a bad reporter, but think twice before subscribing blindly to the “truism” that we do not report ums.

Physically Remove Strike That or Withdrawn

Often, strike that is seen as a false start. Just imagine the typical scenario:

“Q. Were you — strike that. Were you ever an employee of ABC Corporation?”

Again, the rule of context comes into play. In the above scenario, I can’t say I see a big problem with the omission of the false start strike that. But as a mentor to many over the years, I’ve come across the following scenario:

“Q. Were you ever an employee of ABC Corporation?”

“A. Well, I wasn’t an employee at the time.”

“MR. GUY: Move to strike.”

What have mentees come back and said? “Chris, my agency says remove strikes. Do I remove that whole thing?” Working reporters have had to counsel many a new reporter. “No. We cannot remove portions. That motion to strike is the attorney preserving their motion on the record, which will be later reviewed by a court.”

Ultimately, with these three categories, leaving things in as they are said is often the way to go. A court can always seal, strike, or disregard something that shouldn’t be in the transcript. On the other hand, a reporter that does not put something in the transcript can be questioned about why it was removed, or even have their neutrality called into question.

Mispronunciations

Now that we’ve explored some of the common things that impact context, let’s explore some more “what ifs.” Since I was a newbie, the discussion has come up, “Someone said a word incorrectly. Should I sic this?” This comes from a very literal way of thinking sometimes cleverly but pejoratively termed in our field as “the literati.” The pressure is turned up to make something “perfectly verbatim” when there is a video, which brings up the question “are we not being verbatim when the video camera’s not on?” There are two major schools of thought, literal verbatim and readability, and within those schools of thought, you have many different situations and many different gradients. I could not possibly address each one, but let’s hit some common examples.

“Let me ax you a question.” It’s obvious to anyone that the speaker means to say ask. Many speakers do not enunciate clearly. It does not change the context to transcribe “ask,” and it greatly improves the readability, so for such moments where the context is not endangered and the word is obvious, there’s no harm in having the correct word rather than some kind of phonetic spelling. I would say the same for names. Let’s say someone’s name is Dr. Giglio. One person says “Jig-lee-oh” and the other says “Gig-lee-oh.” Again, if it’s clear that this is the same person, and the context is not endangered, transcribing the correct name is the way to go. If it’s not clear, then it’s time to speak up and get some clarification on the spelling! This is not to say you can never write a name phonetically, but try to make these spellings consistent throughout the transcript to the extent people are saying the same word, even if they say it a little differently.

“It’s supposably true.” In addition to not changing context by being too verbatim, we have to be mindful that sometimes people use words that sound like other words. If someone says a “wrong” word or a word we are not accustomed to hearing, we must resist the urge to correct, because that actually can alter context. We must also take the time to research things we are not a hundred percent sure on. In my book, supposably was not a word. The WordPress spellchecker says it’s not a word. I came to learn, a decade into my career, that supposably means “as may be conceived or imagined.” Supposedly is more of a synonym for allegedly. Was this true 10 years ago? I have no idea. As court reporters, we face the harsh reality of language drift. Words fall in and out of use. People do not speak as we were taught. So while you might correct something like axing a question, you have to think twice before you correct something that’s “supposably wrong.” If you have three minutes, check out my favorite video illustrating language drift. You can go back about 700 years before English starts sounding like gibberish and giraffes were camelopards. Through a mix of self-initiated research and our continuing education culture, we keep ourselves ahead of the average transcriber.

Whether there is video or not, you want a clear and logical reason why you have transcribed something the way you transcribed it. In my view, the strongest reason for a transcription choice is “transcribing it any other way would change the context or was not verbatim.” Reporter convention and training take a backseat to that.

What devilry is this?

Dialects

Court reporters are masters of English dialects even when we have no training. There is a study out there that pretty much shows we are twice as accurate as laypeople when transcribing the AAVE dialect. The thing that makes us, as humans, so much better than computers at transcribing speech that has a dialect or an accent is our ability to understand context. For example, in the Northern Cities Vowel Shift dialect, someone might say something that sounds like “she went down the black.” Dependent upon the context, we know that that sentence can be “she went down the block.” In brief, our ability to look at the totality of a statement is important. What a reporter may hear is “down the black.” But what must be transcribed, in the interest of both context and readability, is “down the block,” unless there’s some context that tells us “black” is actually correct.

This is also where our ability to speak up for the record comes into play, because if a reporter is unsure, they can seek clarification. For purposes of our work, dialects and accents are very much like garden-path sentences where a sentence goes in a different direction from what you were anticipating; we can discern what’s said from the context. Though accents are a different animal from dialects, the same rules apply. Early in my career, I had a gentleman say something that sounded like “I got up and leave her.” Through context I knew the statement was “I gotta pull a lever.” He was explaining how to open bus doors! Another man talked about the “zeh bruh lies or stripes” on the road, which could only be “zebra lines or stripes.” We’re not here to pick apart how something was said, we’re here to take down what was said.

Latin

“Vice-a versa” versus “vice versa.” “Neezy preezy” versus “nisi prius.” “Nun pro tunc” versus “nunc pro tunc.” “In forma papyrus” versus “in forma pauperis.” Because of Latin’s considerable history and various modern regional pronunciation schemes, this is another thing that gets confusing fast. My advice? Treat it like mispronunciations. Treat it like dialects. Treat it like all these other examples and look at the context. If someone says, objectively, the wrong phrase, then don’t change it for them, but if you know exactly what they said, don’t transcribe it phonetically for the sake of “verbatim.” Take a look.

“MR. GUY: Quid pro quo is the Latin phrase for ‘from possibility to actuality.'”

So we head over to Google, and we can see clearly that “a posse ad esse” is the Latin phrase for that. Quid pro quo means “something for something.” No correction is necessary here. We knew what was meant, but the wrong thing was said. Verbatim is our friend. But what if it’s just a butchered pronunciation?

“MR. GUY: vee-low-shee-yee-yus quam asparagi coke-a-tor is the Latin phrase for ‘faster that asparagus can be cooked.'”

MR. GUY: velocius quam asparagi coquantur is the Latin phrase for ‘faster than asparagus can be cooked.'”

If you’re following along, you can probably tell that I think the second one is the obvious choice. No matter how butchered that pronunciation might be, if it’s clear, transcribing the wrong word or a series of phonetic jabs is what a computer would do. You’re better than that, use it to your advantage. And do not be too hard on yourself for making a mistake. I have had colleagues that were told the incorrect spelling of Latin phrases by people far more educated than many of us are. Whatever the issue, learn from various mistakes and situations, try not to become so rigid with regard to language that it endangers context, and continue to grow.

But I Was Taught This Way

Whenever stuff like this comes up, inevitably you’ll get responses like “but I was taught this way,” or “I’ve been doing it my way for 30 years.” Nobody can really fight with that. We have to respect one another and those various perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences. But I’ve come to look at it from a liability and reputation perspective for the freelance court reporter. If someone questioned you on a transcript, how would you respond? “My agency told me to” is a very unsafe response, because the agency can just say they didn’t, and if you’re an independent contractor, they’re not supposed to have direction and control over you. So take a look at the practice, and imagine being questioned on it. “That’s what you said” is a much stronger response than “everybody does it this way.”

We have to deal with the fact that, while we may live in a world of “truisms,” like “clients expect us to clean up the record,” these things are not universal, and in fact, as a young reporter, I had a lawyer tell me “you can’t change [false starts], it’s part of the record!” Imagine being about 20, and repeatedly told that “everyone cleans it up,” “this is normal,” “this is expected,” “you’re a bad reporter if you don’t fix it,” and then being slammed with “you can’t take that out.” It’s not surprising to me that there are reporters of all ages and experience levels that struggle with this. I’m really hoping this helps the strugglers: I was you. You’re not going to have an immediate answer for every situation, but having an objective or neutral method for how you make these decisions is imperative. If problems arise, and they occasionally do, you’re going to be defending your work. Remember, this is all about having an accurate record for review by the parties, trial courts, and appellate courts. Our expertise is what stops errors like “lawyer dog” from making it into the record and ruining people’s lives. If your work hasn’t changed the context of a statement and the transcript is readable, you’re off to a great start.

A Primer on ASR and Machine Learning For Stenographers

There’s a lot of conjecture when it comes to automatic speech recognition (ASR) and its ability to replace the stenographic reporter or captioner. You may also see ASR referred to as NLP or natural language processing. An important piece of the puzzle is understanding the basics behind artificial intelligence and how complex problems are solved. This can be confusing for reporters because in any of the literature on the topic, there are words and concepts that we simply have a weak grasp on. I’m going to tackle some of that today. In brief, computer programmers are problem solvers. They utilize datasets and algorithms to solve problems.

What is an algorithm?

An algorithm is a set of instructions that tell a computer what to do. You can also think of it as computer code for this discussion. To keep things simple, computers must have things broken down logically for them. Think of it like a recipe. For example, let’s look at a very simple algorithm written in the Python 3 language:

Do not despair. I’m about to make this so easy for you.

Line one tells the computer to put the words “The stenographer is _.” on the screen. Line two creates something called a Stenographer, and the Stenographer is equal to whatever you type in. If you input the word awesome with a lowercase or uppercase “a” the computer will tell you that you are right. If you input anything else, it will tell you the correct answer was awesome. Again, think of an algorithm like a recipe. The computer is told what to do with the information or ingredients it is given.

What is a dataset?

A dataset is a collection of information. In the context of machine learning, it is a collection that is put into the computer. An algorithm then tells the computer what to do with that information. Datasets will look very different dependent on the problem that a computer programmer is trying to solve. As an example, for enhancing facial recognition, datasets may be comprised of pictures. A dataset may be a wide range of photos labeled “face” or “not face.” The algorithm might tell the computer to compare millions of pictures. After doing that, the computer has a much better idea of what faces “look like.”

What is machine learning?

As demonstrated above, algorithms can be very simple steps that a computer goes through. Algorithms can also be incredibly complex math equations that help a computer analyze datasets and decide what to do with similar data in the future. One issue that comes up with any complex problem is that no dataset is perfect. For example, with regard to facial recognition, there have been situations with almost 100 percent accuracy with lighter male faces and only 80 percent accuracy with darker female faces. There are two major ways this can happen. One, the algorithm may not accurately instruct the computer on how to handle the differences between a “lighter male” face and a “darker female” face. Two, the dataset may not equally represent all faces. If the dataset has more “lighter male” faces in this example, then the computer will get more practice identifying those faces, and will not be as good at identifying other faces, even if the algorithm is perfect.

Artificial intelligence / AI / voice recognition, for purposes of this discussion, are all synonymous with each other and with machine learning. The computer is not making decisions for itself, like you see in the movies, it is being fed lots of data and using that to make future decisions.

Why Voice Recognition Isn’t Perfect and May Never Be

Computers “hear” sound by taking the air pressure from a noise into a microphone and converting that to electronic signals or instructions so that it can be played back through a speaker. A dataset for audio recognition might look something like a clip of someone speaking paired with the words that are spoken. There are many factors that complicate this. Datasets might be focused on speakers that speak in a grammatically correct fashion. Datasets might focus on a specific demographic. Datasets might focus on a specific topic. Datasets might focus on audio that does not have background noises. Creating a dataset that accurately reflects every type of speaker in every environment, and an algorithm that tells the computer what to do with it, is very hard. “Training” the computer on imperfect datasets can result in a word error rate of up to 75 percent.

This technology is not new. There is a patent from 2000 that seems to be a design for audio and stenographic transcription to be fed to a “data center.” That patent was assigned to Nuance Communications, the owner of Dragon, in 2009. From the documents, as I interpret them, it was thought that 20 to 30 hours of training could result in 92 percent accuracy. One thing is clear: as far back as 2000, 92 percent accuracy was in the realm of possibility. As recently as April 2020, the data studied from Apple, IBM, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft was 65 to 80 percent accuracy. Assuming, from Microsoft’s intention to purchase Nuance for $20 billion, that Nuance is the best voice recognition on the market today, there’s still zero reason to believe that Nuance’s technology is comparable to court reporter accuracy. Nuance Communications was founded in 1992. Verbit was founded in 2016. If the new kid on the block seriously believes it has a chance of competing, and it seems to, that’s a pretty good indicator that Nuance’s lead is tenuous, if it exists at all. There’s a list of problems for automation of speech recognition, and even though computer programmers are brilliant people, there’s no guarantee any of them will be “perfectly solved.” Dragon trains to a person’s voice to get its high level of accuracy. It simply would not make economic sense to have hours of training a software to everyone who is going to speak in court forever until the end of time, and the process would be susceptible to sabotage or mistake if it was unmonitored and/or self-guided (AKA cheap).

This is all why legal reporting needs the human element. We are able to understand context and make decisions even when we have no prior experience with a situation. Think of all the times you’ve heard a qualified stenographer, videographer, or voice writer say “in 30 years, I’ve never seen that.” For us, it’s just something that happens, and we handle whatever the situation is. For a computer that has never been trained with the right dataset, it’s catastrophic. It’s easy, now, to see why even AI proponents like Tom Livne have said that they will not remove the human element.

Why Learning About Machine Learning Is Important For Court Reporters

Machine learning, or applications fueled by machine learning, are very likely to become part of our stenographic software. If you don’t believe me, just read this snippet about Advantage Software’s Eclipse AI Boost.

Don’t get out the pitchforks. Just consider what I have to blog.

If you’ve been following along, you’ve probably figured out, and it pretty much lays it out here, that datasets are needed to train “AI.” There are a few somewhat technical questions that stenographic reporters will probably want answered at some point:

  1. Is this technology really sending your audio up to the Cloud and Google?
  2. Is Google’s transcription reliable?
  3. How securely is the information being sent?
  4. Is the reporter’s transcription also being sent up to the Cloud and Google?

The reasons for answering?

  1. The sensitive nature of some of our work may make it unsuitable for being uploaded. To the extent stuff may be confidential, privileged, or ex parte, court reporters and their clients may simply not want the audio to go anywhere.
  2. Again, as shown in “Racial disparities in automated speech recognition” by Allison Koenecke, et al., Google’s ASR word error rate can be as high as 30 percent. Having to fix 30 percent of a job is a frightening possibility that could be more a hindrance than a help. I’m a pretty average reporter, and if I don’t do any defining on a job, I only have to fix 2 to 10 percent of any given job.
  3. If we assume that everyone is fine with the audio being sent to the cloud, we must still question the security of the information. I assume that the best encryption possible would be in use, so this would be a minor issue.
  4. The reporter’s transcription carries not only all the same confidential information discussed in point 1, but also would provide helpful data to make the AI better. Reporters will have to decide whether they want to help improve this technology for free. If the reporter’s transcription is not sent up with the audio, then the audio would only ostensibly be useful if human transcribers went through the audio, similar to what Facebook was caught doing two years ago. Do we want outside transcribers having access to this data?

Our technological competence changes how well we serve our clients. Nobody reading this needs to become a computer genius, but being generally aware of how these things work and some of the material out there can only benefit reporters. In one of my first posts about AI, I alluded to the fact that just because a problem is solvable does not mean it will be solved. I didn’t have any of the data I have today to assure me that my guess was correct. But I saw how tech news was demoralizing my fellow stenographers, and I called it as I saw it even though I risked looking like an idiot.

It’s my hope that reporters can similarly let go of fear and start to pick apart the truth about what’s being sold to them. Talk to each other about this stuff, pros and cons. My personal view, at this point, is that a lot of these salespeople saw a field with a large percentage of women sitting on a nice chunk of the “$30 billion” transcription industry, and assumed we’d all be too risk averse to speak out on it. Obviously, I’m not a woman, but it makes a lot of sense. Pick on the people that won’t fight back. Pick on the people that will freeze their rates for 20 or 30 years. Keep telling a lie and it will become the truth because people expect it to become the truth. Look how many reporters believe audio recording is cheaper even when that’s not necessarily true.

Here’s my assumption: a little bit of hope and we’ve won. Decades ago, a scientist named Richter did an experiment where rats were placed in the water. It took them a few minutes to drown. Another group of rats were taken out of the water just before they drowned. The next time they were submerged, they swam for hours to survive. We’re not rats, we’re reporters, but I’ve watched this work for humans too. Years ago, doctors estimated a family member would live about six more months. We all rallied around her and said “maybe they’re wrong.” She went another three years. We have a totally different situation here. We know they’re wrong. Every reporter has a choice: sit on the sideline and let other people decide what happens or become advocates for the consumers we’ve been protecting for the last 140 years, before the stenotype design we use today was even invented. People have been telling stenographers that their technology is outdated since before I was born, and it’s only gotten more advanced since that time. Next time somebody makes such a claim, it’s not unreasonable for you to question it, learn what you can, and let your clients know what kind of deal they’re getting with the “new tech.”

Addendum 4/27/21:

Some readers checked in with the Eclipse AI Boost, and as it was relayed to me, the agreement is that Google will not save the audio and will not be taking the stenographic transcriptions. Assuming that this is true, my current understanding of the tech is that stenographers would not be helping improve the technology by utilizing this technology unless there’s some clever wordplay going on, “we’re not saving the audio, we’re just analyzing it.” At this point, I have no reason to suspect that kind of a game. In my view, our software manufacturers tend to be honest because there’s simply no truth worth getting caught in a lie over. The worst I have seen are companies using buzzwords to try to appease everyone, and I have not seen that from Advantage.

Admittedly, I did not reach out to Advantage myself because this was meant to assist reporters with understanding the concepts as opposed to a news story. But I’m very happy people took that to heart and started asking questions.

For Students Saddled With Unpayable Student Loan Debt

We often highlight the success stories of our industry. I think this is very important because it keeps current students open to the idea that they can succeed. Like every industry, we will have people that make colossal gains, start businesses, and create a great life with lots of opportunities and experiences. On the other hand, there may be individuals out there who, for whatever reason, cannot finish school or do not land very lucrative work at the start of their journey. I had a rough time starting off. I didn’t have a lot of life experience and most of the work I got was from being a reliable and steady “yes man” instead of having strong negotiation skills or even strong steno skills. Things worked out great for me with time and effort, but it’s time to acknowledge that not everybody is going to have that same experience, and let you in on America’s best-kept secret.

Student Loans Are Dischargeable
For over a decade America has sunk deeply into the myth that student loans are never dischargeable. I heard this as a student. I was told this by my mother and countless role model figures in my life. This myth is so prevalent that I never once bothered to fact check it. These days, you can find resources online to explain to you that they are forgivable, dischargeable, and under what circumstances. There are even United States government sites with that information. For easy access, I’m going to repeat some of the highlights here. Student loans can be…

1. …forgiven with certain public service work and/or work as a teacher.
2. …discharged in the event of school closure.
3. …discharged in the event of total and permanent disability.
4. …discharged or not required to be paid in some circumstances where a school falsely certified your eligibility, you withdrew, or you have a repayment defense.
5. …discharged via bankruptcy.

The courts must decide if repaying the loan would cause you undue hardship. Undue hardship was not defined by the Congress, and so the courts look at whether you would be able to maintain a minimum standard of living if forced to repay the loan, whether there is evidence the hardship will continue for a significant portion of the repayment period, and whether you made a good-faith effort to repay the loan prior to filing for bankruptcy. A court may order the loan fully discharged, partially discharged, or the court may order you to repay the loan. In the event the court orders you to repay the loan, the repayment may be structured differently. It is notable that this is not a magic fix-everything button. There are significant hurdles and it is harder to discharge student loans through bankruptcy. But if you’re stuck in debt and can’t seem to claw out, it just might make sense to put together some money for a lawyer to help you navigate your way out of tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

This is really important to get out there because compound interest works both ways. When you have a savings account or certificate of deposit, every accrual period means more interest added to your money, which means more interest on future accrual periods. When you take out a loan or take on credit card debt, it works the other way, where your minimum payments are meant to pay the interest and pay a small part of the principal. Many people fall into a trap where they make partial repayments that do not cover the interest, and the debt begins to grow instead of shrink despite making consistent good-faith payments. This is how you come across nightmare stories where a person pays for years and yet their loan amount never goes down or doesn’t go down much. Unfortunately, it’s perfectly legal for people to sign agreements that they do not fully understand and incomes in any industry or with any education are not guaranteed. So when things go wrong, it seems like the right thing to do to let people know they do not have to suffer with lifelong debt that they genuinely cannot repay. Rights don’t matter if they go unspoken and unasserted, so if you know somebody stuck in the debt spiral, let them know there’s a way out.

Help Chris DeGrazio Celebrate International Women’s Day!

Chris DeGrazio is one of the newest professionals on our scene and he’s already making a great impact on the field. You might’ve heard Chris interviewing Anna Mar on Confessions of a Stenographer. You might’ve seen the wonderful collage put together for Court Reporting & Captioning Week 2021. No matter where you’ve heard of Chris, I’d love to boost his next creative idea. In celebration of March 8, International Women’s Day, Chris DeGrazio will be working on a collage for court reporter women and their hobbies. So if you’re somebody that wants to be in that spotlight or help put together more content to showcase our profession, here’s your chance, make sure to reach out to him.

While I’m on the topic of highlighting new or upcoming reporter accomplishments, let me just again promote Shaunise Day and her work with Confessions of a Stenographer. I had the privilege of being able to sponsor the episode where Kimberly Xavier was interviewed by Kristine Utley. I had some time yesterday to sit down and listen to the entire interview, and everything Kimberly said resonated deeply with me. She talked about the diversity of our field, the importance of diversity in leadership, the importance of getting involved, and the nonprofit Stenovator Pathway Solutions (Facebook). Getting to hear from her really made me realize that we could be almost two thousand miles apart and still be thinking so many of the same things.

It’s a fascinating time for reporting. When I was a student the common-sense advice was “settle down, don’t rock the boat, don’t stick out too much.” Let me be one to say that did not work. That did not get us to a good place. As Connie Psaros put it, we need more lions, not lambs. So if you’re a working reporter reading my blog and you’ve got a little extra time on your hands, please take the time out to support students and new reporters. These are our upcoming lions, and we cannot let their passions be tamed in the same way that I know some of ours were. Rock that boat, stick out, and keep doing your best to showcase our field! You’re doing an amazing job.