Stenographers are no strangers to social media. We’ve had students like Isabelle Lumsden get thousands of eyes on our stenotypes. We have amazing content from accounts like Stenoholics. More recently, I got to see a video from the TikTok letsgetfries. The video starts with our hero mentioning that she’s been on jury duty for two weeks. The most important thing she’s learned? Stenographers have the wildest energy of anyone she has ever met in her life! Don’t fuck with them. Maybe she’d make a good court reporter, she got our hand and eye thing down already!
I bring this up for the entertainment value, but also as a reminder that strategically social media is our battleground. There are companies out there right now, like US Legal, that are claiming the stenographer shortage cannot be solved by training more stenographers. It’s a blatant lie dressed up like industry news to fool industry insiders and outsiders. Meanwhile, we know from the Open Steno 2021 Survey that about two thirds of people coming into contact with steno, at least in that community, are coming into contact with it thanks to the Internet. So we’ve got to out-presence them, recruit people, and steer our students clear of dishonest companies.
And make no mistake that I am calling US Legal dishonest. In their article they note 1,120 retirees a year and 200 new reporters. An annual shrinkage of 920 reporters, giving the impression that this is an annual gap that never ends and only gets larger. But that’s not how these numbers work. First of all, they’re extrapolated from the Ducker Report, which was a forecast based off 120 interviews and some proprietary data analysis, not a future-telling machine. As more and more reporters retire out, the retirees would decrease each year. Anybody with a second-grade math level can figure out their math is wrong because a shrinkage of 920 annually means there would be zero reporters in 30ish years. That’s not actually possible if you’re getting 200 new reporters a year. The equivalent would be me going on JD Supra and saying the CEO of US Legal gets two brain cells a year and loses ten, therefore his company will probably be bankrupt in ten years. Doesn’t matter if it’s true, it just sounds good. I don’t begrudge people for where they work, but as a company, no matter how great any individual employee might be, they’ve got to be among the most dishonest, toxic, harmful companies in our industry. You know that scene in Star Wars where Luke tells Kylo “amazing, every word of what you just said was wrong”? That’s how I feel. Reporters get some cognitive dissonance here because US Legal does have nice people working for them, but that doesn’t change how I feel about the entity itself. It’s like Theranos. I’m sure nice people worked there, but the entire operation was a big joke that should never have happened.
Letsgetfries, I don’t know if you’ll ever happen across this, but let’s just say we’re so used to being treated like potted plants that whenever anybody says anything nice about us, we boost them big time. From getting Stanley Sakai’s article featured on Medium last year or sharing John Belcher’s deposition strategies. You’re no different. As of late last week we had shared you over a thousand times! Hope you had a great experience with jury duty! If you know anybody who’d like to join our field, please let them know about NCRA A to Z, Project Steno, or Open Steno. For the record, our crazy energy is mostly thanks to everyone saying they can replace us and failing for the last half decade. We’re working it out. Thanks again!
I’ve been writing this blog to help people look at the issues in our field differently and realize that they, as individuals, can change outcomes. Many of us struggle with fear and anxiety, whether it’s about a boss, a work situation, a life situation, or even the simple act of speaking up for ourselves. This blog is about bringing comfort through knowledge and often points out there’s always a way forward.
Here is a way forward for our future public speakers. Years ago, one of my best friends, NYSCRA President Joshua Edwards, asked me to attend a Toastmasters meeting. Toastmasters is a public speaking club. It helps people overcome their fear of speaking or enhance the skills they already have through practice. Toward the start of a meeting they had “table topics,” improvised scenarios for randomly-chosen guests to speak about. As luck had it, the very first time I attended I was chosen to talk about what I would do to sell clothing irons to people. I stood up, said I would lose my job, and launched deeper into an explanation about how I would sell those irons that only my Facebook friends can see because Facebook does not want me to touch the privacy settings on that one.
At the conclusion of the meeting they asked “will you come back?” My response? “No, I enjoy my debilitating fear of public speaking.” I did come back a time or two and always listened to what Joshua had to say with great interest. He went on to become President of that Toastmasters chapter, participate in at least one regional contest, and sharpen his already-formidable speaking skills.
Now he’s setting up StenoMasters, an online speaking club. A Facebook group and page will be made soon. This will be geared toward stenographers, but it is not going to be exclusively stenographers, so if you have friends or family that want to jump into public speaking with you, have them check it out. There are many amazing options to learn about speaking and presenting. Because StenoMasters is going to be a nonprofit club, I assume it will be the most value for your dollar in public speaking practice, and I am very happy to share it with my audience. When enrollment opens, I hope to be the very first member to sign up.
We have a big messaging issue in steno. As more of us cross the threshold from voiceless to voices for the voiceless, our messaging and entire field will improve. Again, this is a life skill that will help you in all your personal and professional endeavors. I hope you’ll join me in joining StenoMasters.
A close friend sent me a Bill Maher clip from a while back. Obviously, Maher has his political leanings, but after he gets done with flaunting those, he makes a decent point. He describes the over-engineering of society and gives some pretty striking examples. His preferred vape’s newest model has no mouthpiece despite being something you put in your mouth. Car handles are replaced with buttons in some cars despite no efficiency gains. He describes a situation where his rental car asked him if he’d like to open the trunk while going 60 miles an hour. The point is clear, change for the sake of change is not always worthwhile or efficient. Indeed, change for the sake of change can be very dangerous.
This is connected to the exaggerated claims of salespeople that I’ve written about extensively, especially as it relates to voice recognition. I described it several posts ago as the claim game. Anybody can say anything. Anybody can make their business seem like the new, hot thing. Take this blog post by Kaplan Leaman & Wolfe from about a year ago. It reads nicely, and it sounds innovative. It mentions a flat-rate fee, affordable per-page price structure, a design to significantly reduce legal expenses. At the point in 2020 the post was written, everybody was doing remote stuff. Pretty much everybody’s got a per-page price structure. Anybody can claim their service is affordable or reduces expenses. It’s called puffery and it’s an ordinary part of business.
Where it gets messy, and where I’ve tried to educate reporters, is some advertisements are easier to spot than others. If Burger King says they’ve got the best burger, most everyone knows that’s puffery and sales. Things get harder with technology. How do you prove or disprove whether someone has made a technological breakthrough without a comprehensive understanding of the science and concepts at work? Not all reporters understand the concept of machine learning. Even those of us that have researched quite a lot can’t possibly know everything there is to know. This leaves a gap for tech sellers to come in and try to fool consumers into buying services that may not suit their needs using the hype train.
This also leaves reporters playing a catch-up game of learning about these systems so they can help their clients navigate claims and discern fact from fiction. For example, the truism that technology is improving every day. We look around ourselves and marvel at this magical modern world. But I’ve taken the pretty hard stance that certain technologies, namely voice recognition and associated technologies, are not improving every day. Give it speech it’s used to and it’ll do fine. Give it speech that’s just a little off from what it’s trained for and it’ll turn “would you raise your right hand” into “it’s rage right hand.”
But surely reinventing the wheel and all these claims of being BETTER aren’t BAD for business, right? If puffery is normal then a little bit of stretching the truth won’t hurt anybody! But we already see that’s not the case. Take Maher’s example. One little glitch on the highway and you could have dead motorists. Take the fact that 25 percent of court reporting companies may be unprofitable; court reporting has been around a long time, it’s likely the losers are the ones trying to switch it up too much too fast. Take vTestify’s massive switch from boasting about providing inexpensive court reporting services to providing an online platform for the legal industry. Take Verbit’s claims in its series A funding of 99 percent accuracy and its subsequent announcement that it will use human transcribers after all, and the very real possibility that it is, despite all its funding, not profitable.
Exaggerated claims serve only as a cliff from which these companies have a chance to walk off of or step back from. The competition is going to wise up. The consumers are going to wise up. I can only hope that a lot of these tech companies realize this, wise up, and start putting their resources behind actually improving our technology. It’s a lot easier to compete in a field with maybe seven players like Stenograph or Advantage than it is to beat out thousands upon thousands of independent contractors and hundreds of reporting firms, many with their own clients and connections. It’s frighteningly easy to see there’s a more lucrative path than over-engineering what stenographic court reporters have made simple, and I can only hope that business owners realize this before walking investors’ money off that cliff.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Allie Hall is a reporter and educator who has made amazing strides in getting schools to pick up court reporting programs and getting students filling those programs. Some months ago, a group of working reporters came together under Allie’s guidance and leadership, and with additional help from co-admin Traci Mertens, the group has managed to donate thousands to new reporters and students in need.
If you are a working reporter or CART writer looking to give back, please reach out about joining the group. There is a fundraiser currently ongoing, and working reporters may donate ten to twenty dollars to help meet students’ needs.
Working reporters may donate via:
Google Pay: email@example.com
There is truly no contribution too small. If you’ve got an extra ten dollars to put down on a student, consider sending it along to Allie today! I am a contributing member of the group, and I have rarely ever seen such energy and accountability in a grassroots fundraiser. This is something special, it’s something I really support, and I know the money is going to making the road that young professionals have to travel just a little bit less bumpy. Most of us can look back at our student years and say “I wish I had…” Now we get to be a part of making sure the students of tomorrow have!
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:
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 neverseen 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.
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:
Is this technology really sending your audio up to the Cloud and Google?
Is Google’s transcription reliable?
How securely is the information being sent?
Is the reporter’s transcription also being sent up to the Cloud and Google?
The reasons for answering?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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’re looking to promote your steno nonprofit or your primary steno business, the numbers don’t lie, marketing is going to bring more eyes to what you’re selling. That’s a common-sense statement, but let’s drive it home. This blog, on average, will get about 500 to 1000 unique visitors a month and about double the views or clicks. That’s just me writing what I write and sharing it on Facebook. In honor of CRCW 2021, I ended up posting a lot this month. I published over a dozen articles, and the “average” did not change much. Now we’ll compare that to December 2020, where I wrote three posts and advertised two on Facebook.
About 700 visitors, 14 posts, that’s about 50 visitors a post. That’s compared to nearly 3,000 visitors, three posts, a thousand visitors a post. About $200 gave me 20x the reach.
Yay for me. Why am I writing this? To help you. On Facebook today there are groups and pages. Groups serve, more or less, as discussion boards. Pages are more like ad space. They’re promotional and you generally control the content on there. You can have a page and a group, and you can have a page act as an admin to a group. There’s one major difference between the two. As best I can tell, groups cannot advertise. Pages, on the other hand, have the power to boost posts. So if you’re looking to market, get yourself a page.
When you create a post on your page, you have the option to boost a post. Check the boost post option before you make your post to get to the “boost” controls.
After you click post, you’ll get transported to the magic world of the boost page. That’s going to look like the image below, hopefully, and it’s going to give you options to put in your budget, and more importantly, edit your audience. Generally if you put in more money, they’ll estimate more views per day. If you put in more days, you’ll get fewer views per day, but the ad will run longer. There are some minimums, but you can go as low or as high as you want. Again, in December, I felt comfortable spending in the ballpark of $200 for week-long campaigns. What will you see in the edit audience tab?
The only thing you should know is your audience has to be broad enough to run the ad. If you’re way too specific, it blocks you. For example, I started clicking demographics for all these things and the potential reach was only about 5,000. I clicked “lawyer” and the potential reach jumped up by millions.
That’s all there is to it! There are a few other options, like whether you want your ad to run in Facebook, Messenger, or both, and whether you want to use Facebook Pixel. My personal preference? I run the ad only Facebook and do nothing with Facebook Pixel. I know a lot of us trust and believe in face-to-face conversations. We want to grow deep connections and be one with our audience. But again, we’re looking at 20x the reach with a small budget.
With that in mind, I’ll be launching and advertising a post on March 1 directed at digital reporters and transcribers. Here’s my thinking: We have this whole group of people who probably like sitting in court proceedings, the companies they work for are not telling them about steno, or maybe even lying to them about steno. It’s time to break that in half and get the good ones over to us. If you support that, or even if you’re just grateful for the information in this post, feel free to donate here. I’m very grateful to people that have donated in the past. Every dollar helps keep this place ad-free. We don’t want to go back to that time.
Alternatively, if you’re tired of my blog, check out Glen Warner’s or Matt Moss’s. There are so many out there, including businesses like Migliore & Associates or MGR. It can be really heartening to see the incredible amount of information and opinions we have out there. Highly suggest checking out any of them.
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…
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.
On August 23, 2021, I was contacted by someone representing themselves as a Bankrate employee. They shared this link with me about buying a house while saddled with student loans and the article does have good general concepts to learn, such as trying to keep your debt-to-income ratio low. Please check it out if you’re looking for more information on finance. I’ve received no money for sharing this link.
During our Court Reporting & Captioning Week 2021 there were a couple of press releases and some press releases dressed up as journalism all about digital recording, automatic speech recognition, and its accuracy and viability. There’s actually a lesson to be learned from businesses that continually promise without any regard for reality, so that’s what I’ll focus on today. I’ll start with this statement. We have a big, vibrant field of students and professionals where everyone that is actually involved in it, from the smallest one-woman reporting armies to the corporate giants, says technology will not replace the stenographic court reporter. Then we have the tech players who continuously talk about how their tech is 99 percent accurate, but can’t be bothered to sell it to us, and whose brilliant plan is to record and transcribe the testimony, something stenographers figured out how to do decades ago.
You know the formula. First we’ll compare this to an exaggerated event outside the industry, and then we’ll tie it right into our world. So let’s breeze briefly over Fyre Festival. To put it in very simple terms, Fyre Festival was an event where the CEO overpromised, underdelivered, and played “hide the ball” until the bitter end. Customers were lied to. Investors were lied to. Staff and construction members were lied to. It was a corporate fiasco propped up by disinformation, investor money, and cash flow games that ended with the CEO in prison and a whole lot of people owed a whole lot of money that they will, in all likelihood, never get paid. It was the story of a relative newcomer to the industry of music festivals saying they’d do it bigger and better. Sound familiar?
As for relative newcomers in the legal transcription or court reporting business, take your pick. Even ones that have been incorporated for a couple of decades really aren’t that impressive when you start holding up the magnifying glass. Take, for example, VIQ Solutions and its many subsidiaries:
VIQ apparently trades OTC so it gives us a rare glimpse of financial information that we don’t get with a lot of private companies. Right off the bat, we can see some interesting stuff. $8 million in revenue with a negative net income and a positive cash flow. Positive cash flow means the money they have on hand is going up. Negative income means the company is losing money. How does a company lose money but continue to have cash on hand grow? Creditors and investors. When you see money coming in while the company is taking losses, it generally means that the company is borrowing the money or getting more cash from investors/shareholders. A company can continue on this way for as long as money keeps coming in. Companies can also use tricks similar to price dumping, and charge one client or project an excessive amount in order to fund losses on other projects. The amazing thing is that most companies won’t light up the same way Fyre did, they’ll just declare bankruptcy and move on. There’s not going to be a big “gotcha” parade or reckoning where anyone admits that stenographic court reporting is by far the superior business model.
This is juxtaposed against a situation where, for the individual stenographic reporter, you’re kind of stuck making whatever you make. If things go badly, bankruptcy is an option, but there’s never really an option to borrow money or receive investor money for decades while you figure it out. Seeing all these ostensible giants enter the field can be a bit intimidating or confusing. But any time you see these staggering tech reveals wrapped up in a paid-for press release, I urge you to remember Fyre, remember VIQ, and remember that no matter what that revenue or cash flow looks like, you may not have access to the information that would tell you how the company is really doing.
This also leads to a very bright future for steno entrepreneurs. As we learn the game, we can pass it along to each other. When Stenovate landed its first big investor, I talked about that. Court reporting and its attached services, in the way we know them and love them, are an extremely stable, winning investment. Think about it. Many of us, when we begin down this road, spend up to $2,000 on a student machine and up to $9,000 on a professional machine and software. That $11,000 sinkhole, coupled with student loan debt, grows into stable, positive income. So what’s stopping any stenographic court reporting firm from getting out there and educating investors on our field? The time and drive to do it. Maybe for some people, they just haven’t had that idea yet. But that’s where we’re headed. I have little doubt that if we compete, we will win. But we have to get people in that mindset. So if you know somebody with that entrepreneurial spirit, maybe pass them this post and get them thinking about whether they’d like to seek investors to grow their firm and reach. Business 101 is that a dollar today is more valuable than a dollar tomorrow. That means our field can be extremely attractive to value investors and be a safe haven from the gambling money being supplied to “tech’s” habitual promisors.
Know a great reporting or captioning firm that needs a spotlight? Feel free to write me or comment about them below. I’ll start us off. Steno Captions, LLC launched off recently without doing the investor dance. That’s the kind of promise this field has. I wish them a lot of luck and success in managing clients and training writers.