The New York State Court Reporters Association is promoting Project Steno’s June 6 outreach webinar, as told by NYSCRA’s Transcript Weekly, posted earlier today by NYSCRA Social Media Committee Chair Marina Dubson. Though stenographers have made great strides in recruitment and introducing people to this field through efforts like NCRA A to Z, Open Steno, and Project Steno, there remains a need to get word out to high school students and staff that court reporting is a viable and vibrant career that young people should give serious consideration. Resources will be provided, and it can all only be seen as a wonderful complement to the resources already published by the National Court Reporters Association. If you’ve got some time to attend at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time this Sunday, definitely consider registering today!
In my Collective Power of Stenographers post, we explored how court reporters collectively out-earn every company in business today. In Aggressive Marketing — Growth or Flailing, we took a look at VIQ Solutions, parent of Net Transcripts, and saw how a transcription company could be making millions in revenue but be unprofitable. This all set me down a path of learning about zombie companies, companies that are not making enough to meet debt obligations, or just barely enough to make interest payments. You can watch Kerry Grinkmeyer describe how that happens here. This isn’t very rare. A Bloomberg analysis of 3,000 publicly-traded companies found one in five were zombies. The main takeaway? Companies can make lots of money and still be taking losses.
I had the pleasure of looking through the Kentley Insights June 2019 Court Reporting and Stenotype Services market research report. I do want to be upfront about it: I have some reservations about the methodologies and some of the reporting. Very much like the Ducker Report, as best I can tell, it’s based off a sampling of respondents from in or around the field. There are parts of the report that are arguably a little incomplete or unclear. For example, being industry experts, we all know the vast majority of the work is done by independent contractors. Independent contractor isn’t a term that appears in the report. Unsurprisingly, when we reach the job pay bands and employment section, it says there isn’t detailed data on the industry and compares us to the telephone call centers industry. So this report is not a must-have for court reporters, but it does have some interesting insights.
Those remarks aside, when we get to the profitability section of the report, we get to see something pretty striking. Based on their data, more than 1 in 4 court reporting companies are not profitable. Average net income as a percent of revenue for the ones that are profitable? About 9.3 percent. For the ones that are not profitable, a loss of about 9.6 percent. And a pretty chart that says as much.
On the following page, there’s a forecast for operating expenses and industry revenue. That’s summed up in another pretty chart.
If we look at the trends here, it’s pretty clear that the forecast is for expense growth to eclipse and outpace revenue growth. If that keeps up, the unprofitable companies are going to be looking at bigger losses year after year. Given all the information I have today, I surmise that the smaller court reporting companies are the more profitable ones and the bigger ones are the ones struggling. There are sure to be some outliers, like small court reporting shops that go bankrupt and leave their independent contractors unpaid. But overall, the smaller companies can’t afford to remain unprofitable for very long, so it’s probably the “big dogs” eating that 10 percent loss. If I’m right, that may also mean the push to go digital is the dying breath of companies that can’t figure out any other way forward. In February, I wrote “…we only lose if we do not compete.” That is becoming more evident with time and data. It is a great time for the stenographic reporter to open up shop and be a part of the 74%.
Speaking of data, if everybody that read this blog donated $1.50, we’d have enough money to stay ad-free for the next two decades. To all donors we’ve had to date, thank you so much, put your wallets away. To everybody else, check out this cool song from M.I.A. about taking your money.
The National Court Reporters Association gave members notice of proposed bylaws amendments recently. If you haven’t given these proposals some thought recently, and you intend to vote during convention time, then please take the time to consider them now. I’ll give a summary of each and what I see myself doing, and why, come voting time.
Amendment 1 – Fellows of the Academy of Professional Reporters
What’s the deal?
The proposal amends the requirements to become part of the Fellows of the Academy of Professional Reporters. The new language mostly points to needing to have stronger ties to NCRA to be a part of FAPR.
I usually lean toward inclusion, but I also see validity in fellows having close NCRA ties. I believe I’m going to vote yes.
Amendment 2 – Stenographic Captioning and Stenographic Captioners
What’s the deal?
Stick the words “stenographic” captioning and “stenographic captioners” in areas where the bylaws say “stenographic reporting” or “stenographic reporter.” It’s making it a point to mention reporters AND captioners.
I have always found the need to differentiate ourselves as a bit silly and the term reporter inclusive of who we are and what we do (steno). As an example, if someone walks into a room and greets a group of colleagues, “hey ladies,” I have two choices, I can huff, puff, and yell “I AM A MAN,” demanding that everyone acknowledge the difference, or I can roll with it and say hello. That said, the differentiation and explicit mentioning of captioners makes some of them feel good. It makes them feel included. It makes them feel respected as having a distinct and important skill. I am voting yes on this one without hesitation!
Amendment 3 – Holding Elective Office
What’s the deal?
In full disclosure, I am one of the people that proposed this amendment. This amendment would make it so all participating members who are stenographic reporters can hold elective office in the NCRA. As of today, you can pay dues and vote on the future of the organization if you are not a certified reporter, but you cannot hold elective office. If this amendment passes, any stenographic reporter that has been a member for five years would be able to hold elective office.
I respect certification very much. I became an RPR shortly after proposing this amendment. But I feel it’s important for us to acknowledge that certifications do not necessarily make a person a leader. The bylaws committee has a little blurb against this stating anyone could claim to be a reporter, join, and run for office, and that much is true, but this idea that someone would join for a minimum of five years and then win an election without anyone else pointing out their complete lack of history is one I just can’t get behind. Take the leap, allow uncertified people to hold office, and open up this association to a pool of leaders it would otherwise not have. About forty percent of the association is not certified. It’s a reality that it’s time to address and tell all stenographic reporters that this association values them enough to give them a seat at the decision makers’ table if they win it fair and square. Any uncertified reporter that could win an election against a certified reporter has political savvy that we frankly need in leadership, so please vote yes.
Amendment 4 – Eligibility to Vote
What’s the deal?
In full disclosure, I am one of the people that proposed this amendment. In 2019 there was a membership dues increase. People that were not at the annual business meeting physically were not allowed to vote on it. This amendment would allow everyone to vote via e-mail.
The dues increase was in line with inflation and completely warranted, but by limiting the pool of people that could vote for it, it made people really mad and gave the impression that leadership would do whatever it wanted and limit who had a say when it was convenient. In reality, it was done that way out of precedent. This amendment will force NCRA leadership to communicate more about dues increases, but I have a lot of confidence that members will vote for increases that keep the association healthy and strong. Please vote yes so that all voting members have a say on dues increases.
Amendment 5 – Conflict of Interest
What’s the deal?
In full disclosure, I am one of the people that proposed this amendment. This amendment would put the requirement for a conflict of interest policy in our bylaws and gives the board full authority to determine the scope of language and enforcement.
Some time ago, Jim Cuddahy was NCRA’s Executive Director. That’s when the Ducker report was commissioned and we had a study done on our court reporter shortage. Fast forward, Jim Cuddahy is a part of the Speech To Text Institute and, in my view, one of many digital reporting proponents using the shortage to say “there are not enough court reporters, we must record it.” It makes it look like NCRA was used to do something that was later weaponized against members. People are angry about that, and NCRA has taken social media flak for it despite there being nothing NCRA could really do. One of the questions that floated up on social media was “WHY ISN’T THERE A POLICY?” Only when this proposal was made was I made aware there was a COI policy, and that’s the point, letting members know in big, bold letters there is one.
There’s a blurb about how counsel interprets this amendment to be illegal, but the association already has a conflict of interest policy. Honestly, I’m stunned. We have a conflict of interest policy, but putting the requirement for a COI policy in our bylaws would be illegal? Baloney. In full fairness, to the extent a COI policy can be viewed as a non-compete agreement, it could be illegal, but that’s why this amendment gives the board power over the language and enforcement. Every single board member and the NCRA have a duty to follow the law and they are required to interpret this amendment in a way that follows the law. Again, it is stunning to me that for purposes of proposal, everyone seems to be assuming it must be interpreted in the most unfavorable possible light. I am hoping that you will all see this as I do and vote yes.
Amendment 6 – Virtual Annual Business Meetings
What’s the deal?
This amendment will allow NCRA to have virtual annual business meetings.
I think this modernizes our bylaws to help us operate even when force majeure would not apply. It’s an obvious yes.
Amendment 7 – Integration of CLVS as Participating Members
What’s the deal?
Certified Legal Video Specialists will be allowed to vote in the association, but will not be able to hold elective office.
It seems unfair to be a certification body for people that have zero input. NCRA advisory opinion 44 points to the verbatim reporter and video specialist roles not mixing, so there’s no reason to think this is some attempt to undermine the association’s goals or membership. This is a chance to show CLVS members that we value their certs without losing any steno board seats. I’ll vote yes.
Associations have a duty to follow their bylaws and the law. The votes we make here dictate to NCRA how it must conduct itself in the future. I’m not against anyone that votes against me here. These votes are unlikely to make or break the association, but they will shift perceptions. On amendment 3, we have a shot at telling reporters without certs we want them to be active in the association, not just collect their money and votes. On amendment 4, we have a shot at telling voting members they deserve a say in dues increases whether or not they can physically make it to the business meeting. On amendment 5, we have a shot at telling all members yes, we have a conflict of interest policy. We have a shot at adding value to membership. Value leads to growth. In the interest of growing our national association, I am voting yes, and I hope you do too.
The New York State Unified Court System commissioned the Future Trials Working Group to look at many possibilities for use of technology in the courtroom. In April 2021, the Future Trials Working Group released a report with recommendations for the court system. On page 13 of that report, there was a section regarding the possibility of automatic transcription, and specifically automatic trial transcription.
The report had a strange view on the possibility of automatic transcription. In one area, it noted “the most foreseeable endgame in the evolution of trial transcription likely is full automation.” In another part just down the page, it stated there were “…obstacles to the use of such technology on a fully automated or even predominantly automated basis for the foreseeable future”, going on to note “…automated transcription — at least at its current stage — could threaten access to justice if widely employed.” The most foreseeable endgame is automatic, but in the foreseeable future, the technology is unreliable. This is, in my view, a strange view to take. The report goes on to recommend that the court system study outside vendor offerings for automated/remote transcription or translation.
Court reporters and the people that represent them did not sit in silence. A response was prepared by the New York State Court Reporters Association and the Association of Surrogate’s and Supreme Court Reporters. Several unions supported the response, and the full letter and list of supporting unions can be read below. My personal favorite quote? “…use of automated speech technology for trial transcripts, by all available information, would not threaten access to justice, it would implode it.” We have, as a profession, put our foot down and said “we are here to guard the record, we have been guarding the record for over a century, and we will do all we can to educate the system on why other technologies are inadequate.” State and national association membership has never been more important. Union membership has never been more important. When you contribute to these organizations, you give them strength to advocate for you.
In full disclosure, I did contribute to the letter. But without the work of ASSCR President Eric Allen and NYSCRA President Joshua Edwards, this would not have been possible. Again, it all points to the importance of association and union membership. Members empower leaders. Leaders fight for an advocate on the behalf of members. It’s a symbiotic relationship that, if you are not currently a part of, you certainly want to be.
This month I had a chance to sit down with Marc Russo of MGR Reporting. Marc’s a working reporter and business owner. We got to hit a lot of topics in this video, including Marc’s history in the field, how reporter skill relates to reporter treatment, and how scheduling ahead can help reporting firms fill their clients’ needs.
Using Marc’s words, it’s about treating reporters like people instead of numbers.
Don’t take my word for it, check out the interview here!
With the news that Verbit has bought VITAC, there was some concern on steno social media. For a quick history on Verbit, it’s a company that claimed 99 percent accuracy in its series A funding. In its series B funding it was admitted that their technology would not replace the human. Succinctly, Verbit is a transcription company where its transcribers are assisted by machine learning voice recognition. Of course, this all has the side effect of demoralizing stenographers who sometimes think “wow, the technology really can do my job” because nobody has the time to be a walking encyclopedia.
But this idea that Verbit, a company started in 2016, figured out some super secret knowledge is not realistic. To put voice recognition into perspective, it’s estimated to be a market worth many billions of dollars. Microsoft is seeking to buy Nuance, the maker of Dragon, for about $20 billion. Microsoft has reportedly posted revenue over $40 billion and profit of over $15 billion. Verbit, by comparison, has raised “over $100 million” in investor money. It reports revenue in the millions and positive cash flow. Another company that reports revenue in the millions and positive cash flow? VIQ Solutions, parent of Net Transcripts. As described in a previous post, VIQ Solutions has reported millions in revenue and a positive cash flow since 2016. What’s missing? The income. Since 2016, the company hasn’t been profitable.
Obviously, things can turn around, companies can go long periods of time without making a profit, bounce back, and be profitable. Companies can also go bankrupt and dissolve a la Circuit City or be restructured like JCPenney. The point is not to disparage companies on their financials, but to give stenographic captioners real perspective on the information they’re reading. So, when you see this blurb here, what comes to mind?
Hint. What’s not being mentioned? Profit. While this is not conclusive, the lack of any mention of profit tells me the cash flow and revenue is fine, but there are no big profits as of yet. Cash flow can come from many things, including investors, asset sales, and borrowing money. Most of us probably make in the ballpark of $50,000 to $100,000. Reading that a company raised $60 million, ostensibly to cut in on your job, can be pretty disheartening. Not so once you see that they’re a tiny fraction of the overall picture and that players far bigger than them have not taken your job despite working on the technology for decades.
Moreover, we have a consumer protection crisis on our hands. At least one study in 2020 showed that automatic speech recognition can be 25 to 80 percent accurate depending on who’s speaking. There are many caption advocates out there, such as Meryl Evans, trying to raise awareness on the importance of caption quality. The messaging is very clear: automatic captions are crap (autocraptions), they are often worse than having no captions, and a single wrong word can cause great confusion for someone relying on the captions. Just go see what people on Twitter are saying about #autocraptions. “#NoMoreCraptions. Thank you content creators that do not rely on them!”
This isn’t something I’m making up. Anybody in any kind of captioning or transcription business agrees a human is required. Just check out Cielo24’s captioning guide and accuracy table.
If someone’s talking about an accuracy level of 95 percent or better, they’re talking about human-verified captions. If you, captioner, were not worried about Rev taking away your job with its alleged 50,000 transcribers, then you should not throw in the towel because of Verbit and its alleged 30,000 transcribers. We do not know how much of that is overlap. We do not know how much of that is “this transcriber transcribed for us once and is therefore part of our ‘team.'” We do not know how well transcription skills will fit into the fix-garbage-AI-transcription model. The low pay and mistreatment that comes with “working for” these types of companies is going to drive people away. Think of all the experiences you’ve had to get you to your skill level today. Would you have gotten there with lower compensation, or would you have simply moved on to something easier?
Verbit’s doing exceptionally well in its presentation. It makes claims that would cost quite a bit of time and/or money to disprove, and the results of any such investigation would be questioned by whoever it did not favor. It’s a very old game of making claims faster than they can be disproven and watching the fact checkers give you more press as they attempt to parse what’s true, partially true, and totally false. This doesn’t happen just in the captioning arena, it happens in legal reporting too.
This seems like a terrifying list of capabilities. But, again, this is an old game. Watch how easy it is.
It took me 15 seconds to say six lies, one partial truth, and one actual truth. Many of you have known me for years. What was what? How long will it take you to figure out what was what? How long would it take you to prove to another person what’s true and what’s false? This is, in part, why it is easier for falsehoods to spread than the truth. This is why in court and in science, the person making a claim has to prove their claim. We have no such luxury in the business world. As an example, many years ago in the gaming industry Peter Molyneux got up on stage and demo’d Milo. He said it was real tech. Here was this dynamically interactive virtual boy who’d be able to understand gamers and their actions. We watched it with our own eyes. It was so cool. It was BS. It was very likely scripted. There was no such technology and there is no such technology today, over eleven years later. Do you think Peter, Microsoft, or anybody got in trouble for that? Nope. In fact, years later, he claimed “it was real, honest.”
Here’s the point: Legal reporters and captioners are going to be facing off with these claims for an indeterminate amount of time. These folks are going to be marketing to your clients hard. And I just showed you via the gaming industry that there are zero consequences for lying and that anything that is lied about can just be brushed up with another lie. There will be, more or less, two choices for every single one of you.
- Compete / Advocate. Start companies. Ally with deaf advocates.
- Watch it happen.
I have basically dedicated Stenonymous to providing facts, figures, and ways that stenographers can come out of the “sky is falling” mindset. But I’m one guy. I’m an official in New York. Science says there’s a good chance what we expect to happen will happen and that’s why I fight like hell to get all of you to expect us to win. That’s also why these companies repeat year after year that they’re going to automate away the jobs even when there’s zero merit or demand for an idea. You now see that companies can operate without making any profit, companies can lie, much bigger companies haven’t muscled in on your job, and that the giant Microsoft presumably looked at Verbit, looked at Nuance, and chose Nuance.
I’m not a neo-luddite. If the technology is that good, let it be that good. Let my job vanish. Fire me tomorrow. But facts are facts, and the fact is that tech sellers take the excellent work of brilliant programmers and say the tech is ready for prime time way before it is. They never bother to mention the drawbacks. Self-driving cars and trucks are on the way, don’t worry about whether it kills someone. Robots can do all these wonderful things, forget that injuries are up where they’re in heaviest use. Solar Roadways were going to solve the world’s energy problems but couldn’t generate any energy or be driven on. In our field, lives and important stakeholders are in danger. What happens when there’s a hurricane on the way and the AI captioning tells deaf people to drive towards danger?
Again, two choices, and I’m hoping stenographic captioners don’t watch it happen.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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!
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 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.
If you’re somebody in the United States, United Kingdom, or Canada who’s sold on a career as a digital court reporter, or even if you’re just passing through looking for a new career, I’d like to introduce you to stenographic court reporting in a way that you have not been introduced. Just to get this out of the way, in very general terms, court reporting is taking down the legal record and providing an English transcript for judges, lawyers, litigants, and the public. Stenographic “court reporting,” can also be used to caption live shows and events, or transcribe recorded material when needed. The big difference between “steno” and digital is that digital court reporters record testimony or proceedings, usually on multitrack audio equipment, and take guiding notes as the proceedings go on. The stenographic reporter uses a stenotype to take verbatim notes of what’s being said. In our industry today there are a few big companies aggressively marketing to young people looking for work. Those companies insist that digital court reporting is an opportunity for them. There have even been journalists picking up these misconceptions without realizing they’re being misled. It’s time to dispel those myths, tell you a little bit about who we really are, and get you resources you can use to explore a career as a stenographic court reporter.
We Are Digital!
One of the most interesting claims I’ve seen from digital court reporting proponents in the press is that “this world isn’t digitized.” We’re old-fashioned. The implication is that stenographic court reporting is a dying art with very little time left as a viable career. Every time you see a representation of us in the media, you get a stenotype from 1983! The truth is that we’ve been digital for decades. Most working reporters today roll with a stenotype that is more like a minicomputer than a typewriter. There’s software onboard transcribing the machine shorthand stenography as we go. So that’s a big red flag, right? There’s a CEO making a major statement who’s clearly lying or completely ignorant. Don’t bank your future on the words of people who are lying or wrong. Not only are we technologically advanced, we’re extremely adaptable. When the pandemic struck, court reporters were in a jam for a month or so. The field quickly adopted remote reporting and now reporters are talking about having more work than they can handle right from home. If you like tech, steno is for you.
We Are More Efficient!
I know that this can come off as a loaded or insulting statement, so let me just get this out of the way. There’s nothing wrong with believing that technology improves efficiency. What’s often ignored in this discussion is that stenographic technology is evolving right alongside audio capture tech. There have been trials of automatic speech recognition in stenographic software. There have been leaps in text-to-text prediction and some software even attempts to guess what we meant when we mess up a stenographic stroke. Recording a proceeding generally entails the front-end recording and the back-end transcription. Machine shorthand stenography, on the other hand, loads the transcription on while the proceedings are going on. The most skilled stenographic court reporters can walk away from a proceeding and press print. The more average ones, like me, are able to reduce the transcription time so much that one person can do the entire job. You can also see this in the numbers. The average court reporter types (we call it writes) at 225 words per minute with a 1.4 syllabic density, so probably about 200 words per minute. The average transcriber types at about 100 words per minute. The average person hovers around 50 words per minute. So just by the numbers, you can see that stenographic reporting can get a job done twice as fast, four times as fast, or with far less manpower. Machine shorthand stenography is also much easier on your hands. We have the capability of getting down very large words or large groups of words with one movement of our hands. As an example, it took me over 18,000 hand motions to get this post down on a QWERTY keyboard. It would have taken about 3,000 hand movements on the stenotype that I was too lazy to plug in. If you’re a transcriber, imagine reducing the stress on your hands to a sixth of what it currently is.
We Have More Support!
Some of the court reporting or transcription companies I mentioned before are riding on another misconception regarding our stenographer shortage. About 8 years ago there was an industry outlook and forecast by Ducker Worldwide that told us there would be a higher demand for court reporters than supply. That part is absolutely true. A shortage was forecasted. Some companies were having severe coverage issues. We saw the number of applicants for licenses and civil service jobs plummeting to about half the usual levels. This can lead to the implication that there are not many stenographers left. It’s an easy myth to propagate. How many of us have you seen recently? Unless you’ve been stuck in a lawsuit, been prosecuted, or seen me on TV, you haven’t seen a court reporter. The truth is that we knew the shortage was coming. Many initiatives popped up to begin recruiting stenographers or helping people get into the field. Depending on whose numbers you’re looking at, there are 10,000 to 20,000 of us working. That means that if you have a problem or a question, you have potentially thousands of people around to assist you. You have a nonprofit in almost in every state devoted to stenographic court reporters. Those nonprofits pull in cumulatively millions of dollars a year with the objective of promoting the welfare of stenographic court reporters. To put this into perspective, a popular stenotype manufacturer, Stenograph, recently donated $50,000 to Project Steno. Nobody’s dumping millions of dollars on nonprofits in a career that has no future. Why aren’t some of these “employers” telling you about this vast support network? Because if you join it, you will have sharper skills and better bargaining power.
We Have Options!
There are freelance, part-time, and full-time positions available dependent on where you are and what you’re looking to do with this wonderful skill. Maybe you’re someone who needs to work from home and “just” do transcription — I know a mom just like that. Maybe you love the law and want to see the process of law firsthand. Maybe you want to caption live events over the TV, internet, or in person, via stenographic CART & captioning. Maybe you want to travel internationally and take work around the world. There are even reporters who have taken the general skill of stenotype stenography and applied it to computer programming, such as Stanley Sakai. The limiting factor is how much time you put into hunting down the type of work you want!
We Are Equality!
If you clicked the link for my TV appearance, you saw that stenographic reporters got some really bad news stories run on them because while our certifications are 95 percent, we only scored about 80 percent in a study where some of us were asked to transcribe a specific English dialect sometimes referred to by linguists as African American English (AAE). VICE News filmed me for about two hours. They cut the part where I talked about the pilot studies. In pilot study 1, everyday people were tested and scored 40 percent. In pilot study 2, lawyers were tested and scored 60 percent. In a completely different study, automatic speech recognition was tested. It got white speech right 80 percent of the time. It got black speech right 65 percent of the time. It did worse when it was tested on AAE! What does this mean? It means that young people that want to ensure equality in the courtroom need to join up and become stenographic court reporters. I’m not gloating about 80 percent. But with no special dialect training, we’re the closest to 100 percent understanding on this dialect, and that was ignored by the media. I am proud to be one of the people fighting to bridge that gap and spread awareness on the issue. Beyond that, in the captioning and CART arena, stenographic court reporters are pushing to bring access to people for live programming and in classrooms. So if you choose this wonderful career you are not “doomed” to sit in legal proceedings for the rest of your life, you can also make a career out of taking down what’s being said and bringing it to the screens of millions of people who need that support. If you’re a person that believes that court records should be 100 percent accurate, someone that believes appeals shouldn’t be thwarted by missing court audio, or someone that believes that deaf people deserve real access, and not “autocraptions,” you’re somebody that needs to join up and be part of the team steno solution.
We Are Waiting For You!
Remember that shortage I mentioned and the resources waiting for you? I have an easy list you can use to get a jumpstart, find the right level of training for your financial situation, and get involved with our field. This is not an exhaustive list, so if you find something online that seems better for you, don’t hesitate to give that a chance. To help you understand some jargon in our line of work, “theory” is a method or system of using the stenotype and its letters to take down English, often phonetically. “Speed” is taking everything you learn in theory and learning to do it fast. Speed is by far the longest and hardest part of training. “Briefs” are stenographic outlines or strokes that do not necessarily resemble English words phonetically in theory, but we use them to get down large words fast. “Phrases” are stenographic strokes or outlines that collapse multiple words into one line of letters. Generally you will “learn theory,” then you will start “building speed,” and then you will use briefs and phrases to reach those very high levels of speed that we work at. It is physically possible to write everything out phonetically, but it will be more stressful on your hands.
Try court reporting for free. NCRA A to Z and Project Steno’s Basic Training are both free ways to try out court reporting and learn basic theory at low or no cost. Both are great ways to jump into the field without blowing $2,000 on a student stenotype only to find out you don’t like steno. On the topic of finding stenotypes to practice with, there are vendors such as StenoWorks, Acculaw, Stenograph, Eclipse, and Neutrino. You can also search on eBay for old Stentura models at a discount, but do not go outside eBay’s buyer protection or you will get scammed.
NCRA-approved schools. There are several NCRA-approved schools across the United States and one in Canada. These are worth looking into if you are serious about making court reporting a career because of the quality of the education. Please note that not all NCRA-approved schools are accredited.
Online, self-paced, or programs not approved by NCRA. There are numerous programs for stenographic reporting. There are programs to teach theory like StarTran. There are programs like Simply Steno that focus on building speed after someone has learned the basics of theory, and there are programs like Court Reporting At Home (CRAH). You can also see if the court reporters association of your state has any advice or school listings. All of these things also have a great deal of social media support. There are lots of Facebook groups like Encouraging Court Reporting Students or Studying Court Reporting At Home. There are students and professionals online right now who are there to help with the journey.
Open Steno. I have to put Open Steno in a category by itself because there’s just nothing like it. It is a free, active, and open online community with Google Groups, a free way to learn theory, and its own Discord chat. There are enthusiasts that build stenotype keyboards from scratch. This is the community responsible for Steno Arcade. This is the community responsible for Plover, a free steno-to-English translation software. It was all started by Mirabai Knight, a CART writer in New York. If you’re motivated to teach yourself for free, Open Steno makes it possible in a way that it simply was not a decade ago.
Christopher Day. Chances are high you’re here because you saw an ad on social media. I’ve been a court reporter for almost eleven years. I’ve been funding this blog and keeping it an ad-free experience (with some very appreciated help!) just to help stenographers and people that aspire to be stenographers. I know people that have transitioned from digital (and analogue!) court reporting to stenographic reporting and become real champions of and voices for our field. Every reporter I know is supportive of stenography students and fellow professionals. You’ll rarely hear one of us refer to another one of us as being “low skill.” Compare that to this marketing infographic from Verbit. They said digital solutions do not require a highly-trained workforce. Do you really want to work with people that downplay your work when it’s convenient for them? These folks are setting themselves up to make money off you. I have no such incentive or financial ties. I’m a guy with a squid hat and a blog who fell into this wonderful career by accident, and I’d love for you to be a part of it.
So if you need more guidance, reach out to me at Chris@stenonymous.com. Do yourself the favor of getting involved with stenographic reporting. If sitting there hearing testimony is something you can see yourself doing, you’ve already got a whole lot more in common with us than half the world. Give our profession some consideration. It’s easy to learn, it’s hard to do fast, and though it takes 2 to 4 years of training, it really can be your gateway to an exciting front-row seat to history and a rewarding lifelong career. If that doesn’t sell you, we also have some top-quality memes.