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Guest Blogger; Court Reporting High Speed student Veronica Walker’s Scholarship winning essay.
How is Stenography better than Electronic Reporting?
We live in an electronic age. We hear mechanical voices prompting us to dial “1” for English. We see words displayed across the bottom of the television screen as the news anchor tells his story. We carry pocket- sized computers called smart phones. So why is stenography still better than electronic recording? What is stenography and what is electronic recording?
Stenography is the skill of writing the spoken word verbatim in machine shorthand on a small, keyboard-looking device at a fast rate of speed with few errors, and then producing from the shorthand notes a written English transcript of the proceedings. Electronic recording is the process of storing a proceeding in a computer either by audio, digital audio, or visual means. It is hard to believe that a human being can compete with a machine, but that is exactly what is happening with the current debate of stenography versus electronic recording. Let’s keep in mind that a human being is the ultimate machine. A trained stenographer can accurately record the spoken word at over 200 words per minute.
A court reporter is visible to the judge and attorneys. Everyone present can see that the reporter is working and the official verbatim record is being made. If arguments break out, if the quality of the record becomes questionable, the court reporter can stop the proceedings to protect the record. Stenography equals accuracy and the official record includes the small incidentals that make a big difference in the final product such as “indicating” or “pointing” or “crying.” The official record also includes notes of off-the-record-discussions or other conversations out of the hearing of the jury but important to the final transcript. However, the electronic recording devices are still programmed by human beings and thus subject to error.
The machine cannot make corrections to itself, cannot ask a person to repeat themselves if they start mumbling answers, and cannot ensure the quality of an official record. The machine does not know when a person is “indicating” or “pointing” or “crying.” The machine cannot turn itself off for a discussion when needed and then start recording again when the discussion is over. When a copy of a transcript is requested from an electronic source, these incidentals are left from that transcript, and you don’t receive a whole picture of the proceedings. The general public believes that electronic recording would be a good way to improve quality and quantity of court records with less expense than paying the court reporter.
However, this is far from the truth and has been an expensive lesson learned in some states already. For example, an attorney in Kentucky had a one day bench trial for a corporate client and found that the entire proceeding was to be recorded by visual recording/electronic recording. At the end of the day when a copy of the transcript was requested, they found that the entire proceedings were “lost”. This cost several thousand dollars in wasted time for both the clients and the witnesses. One of the important features of electronic recording is voice-to-text software that can identify the spoken word and print it in a document.
However, that level of technology is still a decade away from being a reality due to flexible speech patterns, accents, sentence construction, audio technology, and additional processing power required. Think of a person being deposed from Jamaica or New Jersey or even West Texas. The different accents from across the country and even around the world are so varied as to be almost impossible to program into software. We also have the situation of local dialect, also known as “slang.”
These words are so inflected as to be indecipherable except to the experienced ear. Court reporters taking a record deal with the issues of accents, phrases, terminology, and slang. All are issues that a court reporter using stenography can write quickly and produce accurately in the written transcript whereas the electronic device trying to translate with voice-to-text technology would contain numerous errors and laughable misprints. Although some states such as Florida and New York are implementing electronic recording in their courtrooms, there is still a court reporter responsible for making the official record.
That one court reporter may be responsible for up to four courtrooms. They are no longer just court reporters; they have now become electronic record monitors.  The politicians and accountants are trying to pass off electronic recording as a massive monetary savings to the taxpayers. However, if they would look at the ultimate cost of initial setup, which could include rewiring of old historic courthouses, the equipment purchase price, the maintenance of such equipment, storage of files, and still hiring a person to monitor the equipment during a proceeding, then I believe the final cost would be equal to a salaried reporter.
When considering the power necessary to operate the equipment, there is additional power required in the building resulting in higher utility bills. If a courtroom is completely reliant upon digital recording, what happens during a power outage? Is there a backup plan?
Are there generators in place to instantly turn on and keep the court functioning or do the wheels of justice hit the brakes? There is also the matter of confidentiality. When a record is requested, who produces the transcript? Is there a court reporter who would be willing to certify a recording?
You would not have an actual certification of proceedings; you would have a certification that states this is the best transcript that could be made from this recording. Is that what the attorneys want when they ask for and pay for a transcript? If a court reporter does not transcribe the recording, the tape or digital file is then sent to someone who will transcribe it. It could be a court reporting student, or it could be a work-from-home mom, or a person working offshore.
How is confidentiality kept in such situations? My personal opinion is that someday the technology will be available to not only record all legal proceedings, but also corporate conferences, meetings, and appointments. However, that technology is not yet available and until it is implemented on a national scale, the judicial system should keep the court reporter in place as the official keepers of the record.
 JCR published by NCRA, September 2010, pg. 39. “What’s Happening with Voice-to-Text Software?” by David Ward
 JCR published by NCRA, July-August 2010, pg. 51. “Update on Digital Recording” by David Ward