How We Discuss Errors and Automatic Speech Recognition

As a stenographic court reporter, I have been amazed by the strides in technology. Around 2016, I, like many of you, saw the first claims that speech recognition was as good as human ears. Automation seemed inevitable, and a few of my most beloved colleagues believed there was not a future for our amazing students. In 2019, the Testifying While Black study was published in the Language Journal, and while the study and its pilot studies showed that court reporters were twice as good at understanding the AAVE dialect as your average person, even though we have no training whatsoever in that dialect, the news media focused on the fact that we certify at 95 percent and yet only had 80 percent accuracy in the study. Some of the people involved with that study, namely Taylor Jones and Christopher Hall, introduced Culture Point, just one provider that could help make that 80 percent so much higher. In 2020, a study from Stanford showed that automatic speech recognition had a word error rate of 19 percent for “white” speakers, 35 percent for “black” speakers, and “worse” for speakers with a high dialect density. How much worse?

The .75 on the left means 75 percent. DDM is the dialect density. Even with fairly low dialect density, we’re looking at over 50 percent word error rate.

75 percent word error rate in a study done three or four years after the first claim that automatic speech recognition had 94 percent accuracy. But in all my research and all that has been written on this topic, I have not seen the following point addressed:

What Is An Error?

NCRA, many years ago, set out guidelines for what constituted an error. Word error guidelines take up about a page. Grammatical error guidelines take up about a page. What this means is that when you sit down for a steno test, you’re not being graded on your word error rate (WER), you’re being graded on your total errors. We have decades of failed certification tests where a period or comma meant a reporter wasn’t ready for the working world yet. Even where speech recognition is amazing on that WER, I’ve almost never seen appreciable grammar, punctuation, Q&A, or anything that we do to make the transcript readable. It’s so bad that advocates for the deaf, like Meryl Evans, refer to automatic speech recognition as “autocraptions.”

Unless the bench, bar, and captioning consumers want word soup to be the standard, the difference in how we describe errors needs to be injected into the discussion. Unless we want to go from a world where one reporter, perhaps paired with a scopist, completes the transcript and is accountable for it, to a world where up to eight transcribers are needed to transcribe a daily, we need to continue to push this as a consumer protection issue. Even where regulations are lacking, this is a serious and systemic issue that could shred access to justice. We have to hit every medium possible and let people know the record — in fact, every record in this country — could be in danger. The data coming out is clear. Anyone selling recording and/or automatic transcription says 90-something percent accuracy. Any time it’s actually studied? Maybe 80 percent accuracy, maybe 25; maybe they hire a real expert transcriber, or maybe they outsource all their transcription to Kenya or Manila. Perception matters; court administrators are making industry-changing decisions based on the lies or ignorance of private sector vendors.

The point is recording equipment sellers are taking a field which has been refined by stenographic court reporters to be a fairly painless process where there are clear guidelines for what happens when something goes wrong, adding lots of extra parts to it, and calling it new. We’ve been comparing our 95 percent total accuracy to their “94 percent” word error rate. In 2016, perhaps there were questions that needed answering. This is April 2021, there’s no contest, and proponents of digital recording and automatic transcription have a moral obligation to look at the facts as they are today and not what they’d like them to be.

If you are a reporter that wants more information or ideas on how to talk about these issues with clients, check out the NCRA Strong Resource Library, and Protect Your Record Project. Even reporters that have never engaged in any kind of public speaking can pick up valuable tips on how to educate the public about why stenographic reporting is necessary. Lawyers, litigants, and everyday people do not have time to go seeking this information; together, we can bring it to them.

For The Record Documentary Goes Free

Years ago I attended the New York screening of the For The Record documentary. Didn’t really know who Marc Greenberg was (I think we’d exchanged e-mails exactly once). Didn’t really know about Simply Steno. StenoFest hadn’t happened yet. Well, Marc Greenberg is a phenomenal creator and educator for our field. He’s made more content, websites, and listings than I ever will. He’s a solid support for our students. I purchased the documentary on Vimeo and I believe it’s still available for purchase there. But Marc’s come up with something big that I think nails Court Reporting & Captioning Week’s theme, “all you need is steno & love.” He’s released For The Record free on Stenotube. Tell us how you really, feel, Marc.

It takes a lot of courage and commitment to take such a work of art and effort and offer it for free. Show the love back with some likes and shares. If you’re a new reporter or never got the chance to see the documentary, it’s definitely worth seeing at least once. In the screening version, it dove into topics like vicarious trauma and the captioning of 9/11. For me, as a young reporter, these were new and foreign concepts. Want to see your “tiny” profession on the big screen? Enough from me; go check it out!

A Night In Brooklyn, PYRP 78

This past weekend 78 pop-up events across the country launched for stenographers, almost all of which were at the same time on January 18, 2020. For Sabbath observers and those who couldn’t make the January 18 pop up, Devora Hackner organized and hosted one on the night of January 19 in Brooklyn. It was a fantastic night and a good indicator of what just a little solidarity can achieve. Protect Your Record Project, started in California by Kimberly D’Urso and Kelly Bryce Shainline, has swelled to a national movement where stenographers are saying loud and clear to the consumer that we are the fastest and most efficient method of capturing the spoken word.

The Brooklyn event was a real showing of stenographic society in NY. Every attendee’s presence was important and brought something special to the table. Nancy Silberger, immediate past president of NYSCRA and host of New York’s Saturday PYRP event was there. Howie Gresh and Reid Goldsmith, both longtime working reporters and educators were there. Ellen Sandles, a reporter who has done extensive research into the Federation of Shorthand Reporters was present. Representatives and owners of Little, Lex, and Diamond were also present. NYSCRA’s President, Joshua Edwards, also made an appearance some time after the event’s start. There were over thirty decades of collective reporting experience in the room and nearly two dozen attendees.

Everyone came together to talk about how to advocate for stenography. Ms. Silberger mentioned her ability to host some meetings. Ms. Sandles talked about having potential press contacts. Jane Sackheim of Diamond mentioned that space could be offered by Diamond to teach A to Z courses, something NCRA and Project Steno advocates should definitely ask about. Mr. Gresh reminded everyone about NYSCRA’s involvement in offering free test prep classes. Rivka Teich, a masterful reporter working at the Eastern District Brooklyn Courthouse talked about doing a career night and introducing more people to what we do and different jobs in the field. Mr. Edwards reminded everyone about NYSCRA’s mentoring program and urged people to sign up as mentors or to be mentored. He also brought up that attendees were still being accepted for the NYSCRA Court Reporting & Captioning Week Real-Time events.

Many, many ideas were covered. From high school outreach and following NYS legislation to PYRP’s available resources and files, all the way to potential legislative ideas, like copy protection for reporters’ work. The importance of starting discussions on stenography was noted. We talked about the potential of changing covers, parentheticals, and cert pages to say stenographer instead of court reporter. The importance of communicating with the videographer and injecting oneself into the record when necessary to make a better record was talked about.

There is one theme recurrent in all of this. The power of the individual is undeniable. That’s everyone who was present. That’s you. Reporters are getting together and great things are happening. Maybe there’s a skill you have, or some kind of connection you’ve made that can help educate a consumer or empower another reporter. You don’t have to wait for a giant winged creature to invite you, you just have to be brave enough to jump on the wagon.

NCRA and NYSCRA: For Stenographers

It is with a great deal of enjoyment that I share what happened this weekend. NCRA sent out an email blast that it was suspending its corporate partner solicitations. Some of its fabulous directors took to Facebook to share the message as well. I think this is great on a lot of levels. They’re paying attention to our preferred social media space. They’re paying attention to the fact that some of our corporate partners are not being very partnery. They’re reaffirming that they are us.

We all together support the stenographic modality of transcription and record making. NCRA sounds serious about a transformation, and we hope it continues on its current course towards educating the public that this a viable and vibrant career choice and that stenographic reporting is among the best speech-to-text “applications” around. Compared to the NVRA, which doesn’t bother to write back when I ask questions, NCRA’s responsiveness and commitment to its members and potential members is refreshing. I hope that responsiveness continues. I hope that any members that have smart suggestions for changes to the corporate partnership program write in to NCRA today. Out of the many thousands of us, I am sure there are smart and acceptable solutions to be had.

Now I’ll turn to NYSCRA, who also put out a statement reaffirming their commitment to stenography. Let’s face the facts: NYSCRA is an association by stenographers for stenographers. Up until recently, only working stenographers could hold office or vote. We recently held a vote to allow retired stenographers and amazing stenographic educators like Karen Santucci to have officer and voting privileges. The results of such vote were not yet announced, but make no mistake that I was right there voting yes with many of you. NYSCRA is not being coy or dishonest about what they’re saying. They do give entities that donate recognition for donating. Years ago I helped sponsor the breakfast in a Long Island meeting, and my name was right alongside the other sponsors as I recall. I had no control over the breakfast, the event, or anything like that. Sponsors do not control NYSCRA.

Consider this a call for all to get more involved. And don’t believe what you hear. You can get involved in event the smallest of ways. Taking the time to write a suggestion is involvement. Taking the time to attend a meeting is involvement. Even taking some time out to discuss an issue with a colleague and work through the pros, cons, and challenges of an idea can be involvement. Some would have you believe that you must be donating, volunteering, hosting, and traveling to be involved. For those that have the time and energy, we are grateful. But the time things really shine is when a member like you takes up one issue, any issue that you truly believe is important to steno, and makes the associations aware that it can be on their radar. It’s when real members like you step up and propose solutions to the problems we face.

Some look at a question and say: If it was important, someone would’ve answered it already. All I have to ask is: What would make your profession better?

Knowledge Preserved Is Power

Connecting Dots.

To some degree, we all enjoy researching pieces of history.¬†Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes we learn things that nobody else knows. Sometimes we get to use our knowledge to help those close to us, and that’s a wonderful thing.

But I had quite the experience exiting steno school years ago, I found that knowledge was hard to come by. I wanted to know all about the old Federation for Shorthand Reporters. I wanted to know why it failed, and I wanted to know what people’s rates used to be so I could compare them for inflation. Some stenographers were kind, and gave anecdotes, like they made $2.85 in 1989, which was interesting, because I was offered $2.85 when I began my professional steno career in June 2010. $2.85 in 1989 had about the same buying power as $5.20 in 2018. Sincerely, I’m told some have worked for less than $2.85 a page today. I’m basically saying freelancers should be making $5.20 on a regular easy. Laugh all you want, it’s the math. And that’s the point. How is this not common knowledge? How are we not talking about this? How are we not discussing the best ways to negotiate and pull up whatever we’re making today?

Finding real concrete information was hard, and often, even when I became an established professional,¬†people who had some experience in the field were done with the field and didn’t want to take the time out to share their experiences.

It’s imperative that I write a little bit today about why I started to preserve some of these ideas about the market, competition, and steno in general. Some of it is a modern look at how we might make things better, but also it’s about catching up, preserving knowledge, and putting it out there so that stenographers everywhere might benefit.

Let’s be very honest. How easy is it for an agency to tell a kid out of school that they’re only worth $2.85? The kid doesn’t know! The kid doesn’t have anybody to tell them what was or what may be. The kid only knows they’re in the moment and they’re being offered XYZ. It’s not like agencies can’t afford stenographers, they just have an interest in paying the minimum that’ll get the job done. That’s the reality.

We have probably 100 years of stenography. If we assume there was an average of only 20,000 stenographers in those years, that’s 2,000,000 years of life and steno experiences. The industry has survived and thrived. Our biggest weakness is that nearly all of the information today is locked up behind paywalls, private practice sessions, quiet conversations. This constant limiting of the spread of knowledge has hamstrung us like no enemy ever could. As Ariel Durant said, a great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within. Connect the dots, lift people out of ignorance, and the civilization will take care of itself.

Winning.

It’s about training people not to be afraid anymore. It’s about reaching out to students and telling them where you’ve won, where you’ve lost, and how they can be successful. Give them real numbers. Ask how they’re doing. Tell them what people were making in the 80s, 90s, and now. Tell them how people outside of New York City make a dollar on copies. Tell them New York officials make at least dollar on copies. We cannot teach resourcefulness, but we can facilitate an attitude and environment where people understand the market and push for private clients and create stenographic-only firms. We can get to a point where companies like US Legal stop pushing their electronic recorders and start contributing to training more stenographers.

The bottom line is that without a healthy field in multiple disciplines, eventually the train runs off the tracks. I hear a lot of people echo “come to court”, “come to CART”, “come do what I do because it works for me.” But the bottom line is to continue to thrive, stenography needs to continue to grow its market share, and it needs to push to retake where it has lost. A lot of victory has to do with perception. If stenography is perceived as failing, then it is less likely that people will want to get into it, and less likely that people will start schools dedicated to it. Such a perception would be a deathblow for this field.

On the other hand, if it is seen as something new, exciting, and with growth potential, it will encourage people with money, entrepreneurs, and innovators to invest in it. We’ll encourage the building of more free steno materials. It will cause a boom for us, and if we’re smart about it, we may not see that boom end in our lifetime. So I’d say yes, absolutely encourage people to join your particular discipline, but also listen to their problems, and suggest how they might do better where they are too. It’ll make a world of difference for them on an individual level, and save all of us as a whole.

 

 

 

Veritext Buys A Diamond

In a perhaps not-so-surprising move Veritext bought Diamond. I wish every reporter a great deal of luck and success, but I do want to talk a little bit about why I think this is overall bad for us.

Corporations are entities made to create a profit for their owners. That’s their legal and primary purpose. There’s nothing really wrong with this, it’s kind of how things work. When you buy a stock in a public corporation, generally you can rest assured that the Board of Directors has a duty to protect the value of your shares. Yay.

But this poses a unique problem for reporters. Their duty is to their bottom line. What’s one of the biggest expenses? Labor. What’s labor in reporting? Our fees! So ultimately, Veritext, which I now nickname Gobbler Corporation, has bought its way into having what I imagine to be a pretty hefty book of business. This is bad for the following reasons:

If the reporter shortage continues, they have an incentive to push audio recording. It is cheaper and it will always be cheaper to get someone to take notes during a proceeding while it’s being recorded than hiring a stenographic reporter. This savings isn’t likely to be transferred to the lawyers and litigants, but added to Veritext’s bottom line.

If the shortage does not continue, Veritext has a larger market share of New York and will have a better ability to dictate prices to its reporters.

Honest solutions? We need to be better on our information game. We need to keep instructing reporters on what we are worth and encourage them to be powerful entrepreneurs. I’ve written before in this blog about how people can negotiate or seek information on government contracts. Perhaps soon I can write about becoming an NYC Vendor. Now is the time! More than that: We need to start fighting harder. As they start shifting to recorders, resist. Call up your favorite law firm and offer your services. Become the competition. Make them buy you out too. Reach out to law firms and tell them, hey, they’re cutting us out, and they’re not passing those savings to you, so hire a stenographic reporter today for a better deal!

This is the best damn time to be a reporter that I’ve seen in New York. The court system wants you. The unions want you. The association wants you. The agencies want you. Your skills are in real demand. But your willingness to step out of your comfort zone and really connect with customers, clients, lawyers, and the end users of our services really can alter how everything plays out. What you do actually makes a difference. Why? Strategy. Envision the whole thing as a game of chess. In Chess, if you refuse to move, you concede the game. Most of us are not wealthy, can’t concede and stop working. If you let the other player take all your pieces off the board, the sources you rely on for work, pulling off a win grows ever more challenging. If you start making moves, you force the opponent to react. Their game gets thrown because they can’t account for every move you make. Every dollar an entity gets is a dollar that makes them stronger. What do you think happens if the hundreds of stenographers in the city start taking dollars away by being real competition?

And we’re bothering people that want stenography to fail big time. The fact that we’re catching on and creating a plan to fight back is hurting them so bad that they’re gloating at me in anonymous e-mails about how our days are numbered.

So the choice is simple. Concede and let the current shotcallers decide how things are going to go, or step it up and take the time to read about how to draft responses to city RFPs (requests for proposals) and become true entrepreneurs, and introduce true competition to a needy, living market. Remember that a market is not just “oh, they want to pay me this”, but an amalgam of buyers and sellers, all seeking the best deal for themselves. Remember that as a provider you are the backbone of the market, and it’s your action or inaction that dictates tomorrow.

Veritext bought a Diamond. There’s no reason we can’t build ten more.