Speech-to-Text Institute is an association that claims it wants to define, modernize, and lead the court reporting industry. About three years ago, in the Impossible Institute post, I wrote about how it appeared that the STTI had already concluded our shortage was impossible to solve. My position was simple: “There have been no updates since Ducker. How can anyone make that claim?
Several readers sent me the STTI’s newest production, a series of slides that make more claims about our industry and profession.
This is one of those times that it’s difficult to choose how to respond. Spreading their materials gives them free publicity. Being silent gives them free rein over the discussion. I think it makes the most sense to analyze the materials publicly and see what discussion springs from that.
STTI submits there is a steady and irreversible decline of stenographers. My feelings here are similar to the “impossible” argument. It’s a future prediction that’s not predicated on anything other than a forecast that’s been around the better part of a decade and a survey that could not possibly capture all the factors at play in our industry.
STTI submits digital reporting technology is “more than capable…” Arguendo, let’s say that digital IS more than capable. This is an imperfect world. Transcripts are going to be imperfect. And we’ve seen this when it’s studied. Stenographers were only about 80% accurate in the Testifying While Black (2019) study. But a pilot study from TWB revealed laypeople transcribed statements with about 40% accuracy. Half the accuracy! Not utilizing stenographers likely has a significant cost to accuracy.
STTI mentions the current or future capabilities of automatic speech recognition (ASR). There is a patent from around 2000 that shows 90% accuracy was thought to be possible. More recently, in the Racial Disparities in Automatic Speech Recognition (2020) study, ASR from major players like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and IBM were tested. Their tech was about 80% accurate for white speakers, 65% accurate for black speakers, and as low as 25% accurate for African American Vernacular English speakers. Succinctly, the current capabilities of ASR are not very good when studied objectively. Future capabilities are another unknown, and a case of wishful thinking. Dragon remains the best ASR, and that’s the domain of another established method, voice writing.
STTI then mentions that this is an era of alternative facts in order to disparage dissenting views. But this is a clever deflection, as STTI itself is guilty of pushing alternative facts. Just look at this old STTI graphic.
If we assume these numbers are correct and that there were 27,700 stenographers in 2018 and a supply gap of 5,500, that means that as of 2018, nearly 1/5 of every single job would be going uncovered, and it would get worse every year. It’s 2022. Agency owners may be having some trouble finding coverage, but not one has expressed that 20% of their work is going uncovered.
STTI points to how difficult it would be to recruit a large number of stenography students to make up for the historically lower graduation numbers. But a little comparative analysis is in order. Stenography has 26 NCRA-approved schools, tons of schools that are not yet approved (>100), and three separate nationwide initiatives to introduce people to stenography (A to Z, Project Steno, Open Steno). Digital has BlueLedge and the few schools that can be convinced to teach stenography and digital side by side. Digital is less efficient than stenography and it’s likely that multiple transcribers will be needed in addition to each digital reporter in order to make up for the efficiency loss. When turnover of audio monitors and transcribers is factored in, we are likely talking about recruiting similar numbers of people. The difference is that stenography has more infrastructure to introduce people to it. So companies turning to digital doesn’t appear to be a legitimate shortage concern, it appears to be about making money on the “labor churn.”
STTI’s next slide continues to paint a stark picture of the situation.
The slide is misleading in that it makes tactical use of the word “some.” A large percentage of firms having “some” level of struggle isn’t surprising. Firms were having “some” level of struggle to cover things before the shortage too.
STTI claims the majority of court reporting firms use digital. But STTI only surveyed 156 firm owners. According to the Kentley Insights Court Reporting & Stenotype Services 2019 market research report, there were over 3,000 firms in the industry. A population of 3,000 would need a sample size of 341, assuming a confidence interval of 5, according to this sample size calculator. If we wanted to be more certain, with a confidence interval of 2, the sample size jumps to 1,334. And again, there is tactical use of the word “some.” “Some” digital use could be one digital reporter sent out on one job. I can’t blame STTI for trying to collect data, but the data is not reliable for making definitive, sweeping, or predictive statements.
STTI mentions the widespread use of remote reporting, but fails to mention that this has increased stenographers’ coverage abilities. Many of us are no longer sitting in traffic and are able to jump job, to job, to job.
The technology slide points to how technology suppliers want us to embrace what they’re selling. It’s self-serving. “Trying to change stuff is futile, now buy my new software.” It is laughable to me that they think ASR is a future supplement for this field when they have not even worked out good and consistent cross-compatibility among softwares. Who would believe that these companies are going to succeed where the tech giants have failed?
We actually see this play out in a later slide where the technology suppliers outright admit they’re aiming for the business of digital court reporters, court reporting firms, and courts. It’s not about selling what’s efficient or best for your business, it’s about selling.
This is about making business owners afraid that if they do not jump on the digital/tech train, they will be left behind. We can all appreciate the importance of technology. But there is, to some extent, a practice among tech suppliers to make consumers afraid so that consumers open their wallets. Nobody wants to be Kodak, so everybody piles blindly into what they are told is the future.
I operate under the belief that most people seek truth. By summing up how and why these claims are questionable, I hopefully enable others to educate. If you feel there is some merit to these arguments, feel free to share, and enable more reporters and business owners to understand what’s out there, what’s being said, and why it may not be accurate.
It came to my attention through an anonymous source that on June 26, 2021, the Pennsylvania Court Reporters Association held a webinar titled “Educating the Next Generation of Reporters.” The learning objectives were pretty standard: The importance of staying up to date with technology, how technology is affecting reporting, and recruiting individuals to become students of court reporting. At a glance these are all things related to technology and advocacy, and certainly fall under NCRA’s CEU guidelines. Nothing particularly surprising until we get to a couple of the presenters.
Chrissy Boggs from Secure Transcription Solutions (STS) and Kelly Moranz from Tri-C. Secure Transcription Solutions doesn’t sound like court reporting and Ms. Moranz is on the board of the Speech To Text Institute (STTI). STTI is basically the new mouthpiece of digital reporting and automatic speech recognition. They claim that they want to set quality standards for all methods of record taking, but as we’ll get into, digital reporting, and especially automatic speech recognition, is inherently less efficient and cannot consistently meet the quality of stenographic court reporting or voice writing as of today.
It was noted that Chrissy Boggs has worked with STS since its inception in 2019. “During that time, she has embraced the unique challenges posed by the court reporting industry; namely, the issue of expediently producing qualified reporters using critically needed and thoughtfully designed digital reporting technologies.” At this point, at least some reporters in attendance were confused, and for good reason. There is an audience requirement for CEUs. Courses must be designed to meet the continuing education needs of a specific credential holder segment. Take a look.
During the presentation, automatic speech recognition by Parrot was showcased transcribing My Cousin Vinny. It performed poorly according to at least two sources. It was mentioned that there’s room for every method and they don’t diminish one method over the other. In summary, the presentation was a platform that legitimized digital reporting and automatic speech recognition as court reporting technologies, and if you don’t believe me, you can check out the extensive notes taken by my source.
Being somebody who just resigned from an association board last month, I thought “this must be in violation of their mission statement or bylaws.” I could not have been more wrong. As of today, PCRA’s bylaws do not define court reporters as stenographic court reporters. Their purpose is the general welfare of court reporting.
My investigation didn’t stop there. I took a look at the mission statement, which I could see was revised late last year.
So then I used the Wayback Machine to get a look at what the mission statement had been in August 2020, prior to the revision. It unreservedly and unapologetically was about stenographic court reporting. That was the clear mission of PCRA prior to the November 2020 revision.
This leads, naturally, to some questions. Questions that I asked PCRA right away.
1. Does PCRA see the future generation of reporters as being digital reporters? 2. Why was PCRA’s mission objective changed from focusing on stenographic reporters in November 2020? 3. Doesn’t it seem nonsensical to promote the modalities as equal when stenographic reporting organizations like NCRA are many times bigger than digital reporting nonprofits? 4. Any other comments related to the session or PCRA’s stance as it pertains to stenographic reporting and digital reporting.
I was ready for them to kick my ass (in a good way). Maybe some kind of legal requirement was at play. Maybe I missed something very, very obvious. Maybe a mistake was made. Whatever the case, certainly a board of RPRs was going to set the record straight and make this situation clearer.
If you take the statement at face value, it’s actually not a bad statement. A hundred percent steno sounds good. But my four questions were pretty softball questions. It would’ve been pretty easy for anyone with any conviction or strong feeling to say “The future is steno. No further questions.” They didn’t bother. Regardless of actual intention, this creates justifiable suspicion of a change in direction, a lack of conviction, and/or a desire to hide something. All things we do not need in leadership today. If that sounds harsh, let’s apply the response I got to some other situations together.
For those that can’t watch the video, I sit down with guest star Marina Dubson in a series of three short skits. In the first skit, the question is asked, “Did you cheat on me?” The response, “baby, I’m 100 percent you.” In the second skit, the question is asked, “Why did you eat all the snacks?” The response, “While the number of snacks has recently changed, my objective remains the same.” In the third skit, the question is asked, “Why would you invite Johnny to the party? You know we don’t get along.” The response, crickets. There’s not a single situation I can think of where avoiding questions like that doesn’t raise some suspicion, whether it be suspicion that the answerer is lying or that the answerer simply does not care enough to give a real answer.
Well, I am incredibly naive and gullible. Maybe they just forgot there were specific questions posed.
I cannot overstate how upsetting this is for me personally. I’m no association hater. I’m a member of six different associations this year, though admittedly not PCRA. In my view, PCRA has always been among the best teachers with regard to political writing and advocacy for reporters. They were the victims of a mindless media flop that I have spent years trying to correct. They have maintained great materials on their site with regard to writing to politicians or writing to editors since I was a young reporter. There’s a lot of great stuff about the organization that reporters should support. But this needs an immediate course correction. I’ve gotten better responses in the past from Esquire and Veritext. I hope I am not the only one that finds it a little odd that, when questioned, Veritext, ostensibly among the leaders of the corporations pushing digital reporting, says technology “...will not take the place of the stenographer” and PCRA, when questioned, can’t be bothered to answer directly. It’s about as bizarre as NCRA’s complete silence on the matter despite requests for comment from myself and others.
Just in case somebody thinks this is all bluster and that digital reporting and/or ASR really can be equivalent to stenographic reporting, let me set the record straight. It can take up to eight transcribers to complete a rough draft, something I was completely oblivious to until I consulted Lisa Migliore Black from Migliore & Associates. She had this to say:
“I’ve spoken with Verbit salespeople on a few occasions over the past few years. In the most recent sales pitch regarding the provision of rough draft transcripts, the representative stated that eight transcriptionists would be working behind the scenes to provide a rough draft of the day’s proceeding with a final transcript delivered the next day. Eight. Eight sources of potential breach of confidentiality. Eight transcriptionists to provide the rough draft that a single stenographic reporter could produce within seconds of the conclusion of a legal proceeding. Eight transcriptionists to provide the next day [that] a team of three (stenographic reporter, scopist/editor, and proofreader) could produce within an hour of the ending of the proceedings on the same day with a stenographic reporter in charge. If Verbit’s ASR technology were truly an advancement, shouldn’t it be more efficient and require far less human involvement?”
In brief, there’s no reason to believe the technology is equivalent, and Verbit, a digital reporting proponent, has conceded the lack of equivalence its own infographics, as I reported in the past.
For those that believe pay is commensurate with training or experience, enjoy this video where a Youtuber advertises that transcribers can make 23,000 Indian rupees a month working with Verbit. That’s about $308 a month as of writing. Good luck maintaining uncompromising quality and adhering to AAERT standards when digital proponents can pay people 8,000 miles away 6% or less of what court reporters make today. No matter what Moranz had to say during the presentation, the hard fact is that once you shift the reporter from the front end to the back end, unscrupulous and conniving people are going to be shipping the work off to Manila, Kenya, and India where your laws and best practices are not enforceable. How do we know? They already do it.
It’s just anti-intellectual to continue to pretend that these things are equal. 85 percent of AI business solutions, the umbrella under which ASR lives, are predicted to fail by 2022. There’s very good reason to believe some companies relying on digital solutions are unprofitable. Court systems have acknowledged that the use of such technologies would threaten access to justice. Captioning advocates refer to ASR output as autocraptions. That PCRA is okay with platforming this stuff as stenographic reporter education and then comfortable with giving me one of the most non-responsive responses I’ve ever had the displeasure of reporting should give reporters and the consumers we serve pause.
There’s a real easy way to remedy this situation, and there can be some good to come from it. Bylaws matter. Board members and the organizations they serve are obligated to follow the law and the organization’s bylaws. If you are not a Pennsylvania reporter, the best thing you could do for this industry right now is forward this to a Pennsylvania reporter. If you are a Pennsylvania reporter, then any three members of the board or any five members of the association can propose a bylaws amendment.
You need only slip the word stenographic in front of “court reporting” and “captioning” in Article II and redefine court reporter in Article III to be any person who captures the spoken word by stenotype or stenographic means.
This exercise will serve a few purposes. If everything is cool, then the amendment is going to pass without issue, members can feel confident in their PCRA, and this post can go down as the ramblings of Chris Day, the registered paranoid reporter. It is not lost on me that there are good, professional people on that board right now and that leaders sometimes stay silent for strategic reasons or out of fear. At this point we really need our leaders to fear silence and take strides to safeguard our associations. I am unabashedly a steno ally. If I can’t get satisfactory answers, then any time a writer wants to spin a bullshit anti-steno story, they’re going to tear our leaders apart. Changing the bylaws will allow PCRA to come out strong on this issue and maybe give the organization some practice in responding to media inquiries.
The exercise will also help identify people who might be sitting in positions of power with an intention to spread the consumer nightmare that is digital reporting. If anyone fights the amendment, it’s a great indicator they’re trying to subvert your organization’s original mission and have got to be voted out. Those subversives, by the way, will be the ones saying “we don’t need to amend the bylaws because there’s no problem with the bylaws.” Those subversives will be the ones who want to publish a throwaway statement about this article instead of amending the bylaws.
Subversives are not going to spell out for you that their intentions are not in line with what most of us expect from stenography’s leaders. How do we know? Again, it’s already happened before. Jim Cudahy was the Executive Director of NCRA. He did the association a great service in getting the stenographer shortage forecasted. Nowadays he’s using his “knowledge” and past title to advocate for an integrated market of stenographic and digital reporters and bring some legitimacy to AAERT and STTI.
Professional flip flopper, weaponizing the shortage against us, and completely shameless. It’s very dangerous to engage in pitchfork culture. It’s also very dangerous to continue to trust everybody when there is at least some evidence of a small minority in the field willing to use their credentials and experience to sabotage the rest of us. That’s why I urge Pennsylvania reporters to take control of the situation and get those bylaws amended in 2022.
This exercise will also put the industry on notice that stenographers are not going to sit idle while the dues they pay are used to advocate for their elimination. There is also some hope that every reporter in the country realizes now how important it is for us to take ownership of our associations. If you don’t want your association, STTI and AAERT supporters will be happy to have it, its legitimacy, and its bank account.
You want an easy win for steno? It takes three to five of you to make the difference. In an organization that is 100% steno, it will never get easier.
Addendum: A few hours after this article launched, an e-mail was sent by Lisa Migliore Black to a number of people regarding whether the CEUs should be counted. A response by NCRA President Christine Phipps acknowledged that the course, in the way that it was submitted to NCRA, was appropriate. She pointed out that withdrawing the CEUs would punish certification holders that had already taken the course, and explained that steps had been taken to review the content. It was further mentioned that steps would be taken to deal with similar issues in the future. Not a bad outcome and certainly in line with what I had expected when I initially reached out to NCRA. As of writing, I cannot think of a way to screen CEU courses better without making it a much more burdensome process on nonprofit and commercial educators, so I think these actions are appropriate for addressing junk education.