Capturing the words of the world: Careers in court reporting, captioning, and CART

As media streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon continue to produce original content at a clip that threatens to outpace television networks and cable channels, as federal regulations increasingly require accommodation for people with disabilities in the classroom and workplace, and as technology allows more and more of our everyday lives to happen “on the record,” the need for real-time transcription will rise exponentially.

Yet as the need for captioning professionals continues to increase, even traditional courtroom reporters – the backbone on which the industry still relies – are becoming scarce.

The National Court Reporters Association and Ducker Worldwide project that by 2018, there will be a shortage of approximately 5,500 qualified court reporters and captioners, and that shortage will continue to grow. Each year it does, society will suffer.

“Decreased enrollment and graduation rates for court reporters, combined with significant retirement rates, will create … a critical shortfall,” states the 2013-2014 Court Reporting Industry Outlook Report. In some areas, the “critical” nature of this deficit is already apparent:

Just last month, The University of California at Berkeley began deleting more than 20,000 public video lectures and podcasts that are inaccessible to listeners with disabilities because they do not have captioning and are thus noncompliant with new ADA regulations. That’s thousands of hours of free education gone because captioners weren’t involved in its creation.

Also in 2017, Nueces County, Texas, Judge Nanette Hasette was forced to close her courtroom for three days. Her court reporter was unavailable, and there were no substitutes. “We cannot do our jobs without court reporters,” said fellow Nueces County Judge Missy Medary. As a result, the Neuces County court system approved an increase in the starting salary of court reporters more than $16,000 to approximately $65,250.

Courtrooms, universities, and media corporations around the country are taking the impending shortage of qualified stenographers very seriously. The effect this shortage will have on state and federal judicial systems, colleges and universities, and national media corporations is significant, and the industry is in dire need of these uniquely qualified workers.

Preparing for a technology takeover?

Contrary to popular belief, the court reporting industry is not on the brink of being overtaken by technology. Many organizations have tried to replace human court reporters and captioners with computers, but the effort has been largely unsuccessful. While there are programs that aid court reporting by making transcription and captioning efforts easier, it’s simply not a task that can be taken over by a robot.

Consider just some of the myriad factors that play into the need for human interpretation:

  • In a courtroom, it isn’t uncommon for people to begin talking over each other, raising their voices to be heard. A human court reporter can speak up and ask the competing parties to repeat themselves, but a computer cannot and would risk the utterances being lost forever.
  • Speech is often unintelligible to artificial intelligence. A computer cannot readily understand garbled speech, a quiet voice, a unique accent, or a speech impediment.
  • Language contains many nuances and subtleties that require human understanding. The tone in which something is said can completely alter its meaning in a way computers cannot recognize.
  • Technological equipment is prone to failure. Even programs with backup software would lose minutes in a reboot, and chances are good that it wouldn’t be apparent until later that time and words were missing.
  • Reporting and captioning often include visual cues. A court reporter is able to capture if a defendant shrugs or shakes his head. A transcriptionist in a classroom is able to relay an image drawn on a whiteboard to accompany a professor saying, “This diagram is just one example.”

The appeal of a court reporting career

Court reporting has always been a well-kept secret. Perhaps because the profession isn’t as high-profile as other careers in law or media, it’s often been overlooked as a career option. But increasingly, the secret is getting out. Court reporting has recently been recognized by multiple sources as one of the highest-paying jobs you can get without a college degree. The benefits of a court reporting career are numerous, and people enter the field for a variety of reasons including:

  • Earning potential: Financially, court reporting is a great choice. More than 60 percent of people working as court reporters and captioners are making at least $60,000 annually, according to the National Court Reporters Association. Twenty-five percent earn between $76,000 and $100,000 and 17 percent earn six figures – more than $100,000 – every year. With an average starting salary of $45,000 and salaries expected to increase by 14 percent through 2020, court reporters can make a lot of money.
  • Employment prospects: According to the BLS, job prospects for graduates of court reporting programs are expected to be very good. Research by Ducker Worldwide predicts that more than 5,500 new court reporting jobs are about to become available, and more will follow. About 70 percent of court reporters will retire in the next 20 years because that much of the workforce is above 45 years old. Opportunities will be especially great for court reporters in California, Texas, Illinois, New York, and North Carolina.
  • Flexibility: A career in this industry can be what you make of it. Some court reporters are employed by law offices or court systems, but many others work for themselves and either contract or freelance their way into the courtroom, taking on as few or as many jobs as they want. Computer Access Realtime Translation (CART) providers are often able to work untraditional hours, and most broadcast captioners are able to work from home.
  • A job you love: No matter what you want out of your career – excitement, fulfillment, challenge, or the knowledge that you’re helping others – you can find it in the court reporting field. Whether you’re helping justice be served from a courtroom or helping those with hearing loss get an education or watch exciting sporting events, there’s a job that’s right for you.

Is court reporting or captioning right for me?

While court reporters tend to communicate high levels of job satisfaction, the field isn’t necessarily for everyone. The program requirements and certification can be challenging, and there are certain traits that make some a better fit for the industry than others. They include:

  • Dexterous hands and fingers: Typing on a stenograph machine is different than typing on a traditional keyboard, but being able to type quickly and correctly on a computer is a good indication that you’ll take well to the new skill. Court reporters are often required to type at least 225 words per minute – and to do it accurately.
  • The ability to stay calm under pressure: If you handle stress well, you could make a good court reporter. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Because of the speed and accuracy required to capture a verbatim record and the time-sensitive nature of legal proceedings, some court reporting positions may be stressful.”
  • A good grasp of grammar: People don’t speak in punctuation, but when you’re transcribing from shorthand, you’ll need to insert it into the record. The ability to turn the spoken word into correct, easily-readable text is paramount to a successful court reporting career.
  • An ear for detail: Court reporters and captioners need to be able to focus on what they’re listening to and transcribe it in near real time, so they need to be able to tune out distractions and hear what’s being said next, even as they’re typing the previous words.

A day in the life of a court reporter, captioner, or CART provider

Traditionally, as the name implies, court reporters work in legal settings, creating word-for-word transcriptions at trials, depositions, administrative hearings, and other legal proceedings. Increasingly, though, people who work in the “court reporting” field do so under other titles, in other environments altogether. Captioners, for example, provide captioning for television and other media, and CART providers translate public events, business meetings, and classroom lectures for deaf or hard-of-hearing people. Broadly, their duties may include:

  • Attending depositions, hearings, proceedings, classroom lectures, political speeches, and other events that require written transcription
  • Watching television broadcasts, movies, or sporting events and transcribing the happenings into the written word
  • Capturing spoken dialogue with stenography machines
  • Reporting speakers’ identities, gestures, and actions
  • Asking speakers to repeat or clarify inaudible or unclear statements
  • Reviewing their notes and researching technical terminology as needed for clarity
  • Editing transcripts for typographical and grammatical errors
  • Providing copies of transcripts and recordings to courts, counsels, media corporations, or individuals

Some court reporters travel between courthouses and different office locations to perform their work, but broadcast captioners and CART providers usually work remotely from either their homes or central office locations.

Training for a career in court reporting

Most court reporters have earned an associate degree or certification from a college, university, or technical school like Arlington Career Institute (ACI), the only institution that offers court reporting programs in the Dallas/Ft. Worth metro area. In addition to machine shorthand theory, the programs include instruction on English, law and legal terminology, keyboarding, proofreading, and more.

The full-time students can complete one of the programs in about three years, and courses can be taken on campus or online.

ACI notes that “Court reporting is a unique program, and not all students proceed or progress at the same pace. It is not the same as taking an academic course which can be specifically laid out in a quarter or semester and then completed by students at the same time.”

This is because the primary purpose of the program is to help students become proficient at using a stenotype machine, the specialized word processor that court reporters, captioners, and CART providers use to record what they’re listening to. The machine has a 22-button keyboard that can be used to type more than 200 words a minute. Stenographers use their left hands to spell out the beginning of a word, their thumbs to record the vowels, and their right hands to type the end of the word. Generally, words are recorded in “chords” – where multiple keys are pressed at the same time, like on a piano.

Stenography machines don’t include all the letters of the English alphabet, so users learn one or more shorthand theories that instruct how words are recorded phonetically.

Learning stenography can be frustrating, but for those who are diligent about their practice and excited about their opportunities, the knowledge is well worth it.

Upon completion of a program, it’s important for graduates to know the employment requirements for the state where they want to work. The national certification exam to become a Registered Professional Reporter (RPR) is used or accepted for employment in 22 states. Other states, like California, Georgia, New York, Oklahoma, and Texas, require you to pass a state-specific CSR or CCR exam to work as a court reporter. Still other states, like Florida, don’t require any state or national certification, but do require graduation from an approved court reporting program. Graduates who work in legal settings may need to be licensed by the state or certified by a professional association.

Learn more about the court reporting industry

The court reporting industry is in desperate need of qualified people to fill the shortage of trained professionals. If you think a career in court reporting, captioning, or CART could be right for you, it’s time to take the next steps. There are a variety of resources available to learn more about educational and employment opportunities, beginning with:

The National Court Reporters Association

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook: Court Reporters

Arlington Career Institute Court Reporter Program

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