By Christine Phipps, RPR, FPR, LCR(TN/NJ), CEO of Phipps Reporting
The person who cuts your hair needs a license to perform that service. So does the bartender at your local happy hour place. However, in more than 25 states, court reporters are not required to have any kind of licensure in order to practice. This means that some firms send out digital recorder operators under the guise of “court reporter.” These operators audio-record the proceedings and may or may not transcribe them later. A stenographic court reporter, instead, is writing every word in real time during the proceedings.
Differences between stenographic court reporters and recorders
Stenographic court reporters usually hold a bachelor’s or associate degree in court reporting. Degree requirements often include proficiency in English grammar as well as technical jargon like legal and medical terminology. A digital recorder operator may have six months of training or less before sitting in a courtroom or deposition suite. Stenographic court reporters are both personally and ethically committed to capturing every word.
The most professional stenographic court reporters have earned and maintain certification from the National Court Reporters Association. The entry-level certification, the Registered Professional Reporter, guarantees the stenographic court reporter can write at 225 words per minute minimum at 95% accuracy and proves a baseline knowledge of English grammar, medical and legal terminology, technological savvy, and industry best practices. In order to maintain their certification, NCRA-certified stenographic court reporters also need to keep their skills and knowledge current through required continuing education units. Furthermore, they are held to an ethical standard to remain impartial guardians of the record. If an NCRA-certified stenographic court reporter fails to uphold these standards, they risk losing their certification if a client lodges a complaint against them with the National Court Reporters Association.
Pitfalls of audio
Most people are familiar with the most obvious pitfalls of audio recording: malfunctioning equipment, operator error (such as forgetting to press “record”), terrible acoustics in large courtrooms, technical interference, and ambient noise from loud air conditioners, people coughing or sneezing, or side conversations. All of these can make it difficult to impossible to hear the recorded testimony. But consider some of the other, less obvious ways that audio or digital recording can go wrong.
Have you ever realized that you’ve been singing the wrong words to a song? One of the issues with audio recordings is that different words can sound the same. A digital recorder operator often isn’t the same person transcribing the audio recording. Since the transcriber was not in the room, they can misinterpret or mishear words on the recording and add them to the transcript. However, a stenographic reporter is paying attention to each word and punctuating live as the proceedings are happening. Stenographic court reporters are trained to listen for and identify homophones and other words and phrases that sound similar. They can modify how they’re writing a word to make sure it’s the correct one, and because they’re present during the proceedings, they can discern what the word should be through context as they’re writing.
Sometimes words are simply mispronounced due to human error, accents or dialects, or even garbled, unclear speech. A stenographic court reporter is a trained listener who can hear all kinds of speech and still write it clearly and accurately. This skill is even more important with technical testimony. Many stenographic court reporters have developed an expertise in certain types of testimony (such as medical malpractice or asbestos) so they are already familiar with some of the vocabulary and jargon used in those types of proceedings. A stenographic court reporter can also use a word list of technical terminology and proper nouns to modify their writing ahead of the proceedings. This ensures these words will come up correctly while writing the record.
Sometimes, attorneys and witnesses will even try to outsmart a digital recorder by using tactics like speaking low, hoping either the words would not be picked up on the record or to slip in something objectionable (only to be discovered after the record has been finalized). A digital recorder operator may not know when something is spoken too quietly for the technology to actually record it. Or, if someone isn’t monitoring the recording every second, they may not even know about it. But a live stenographic court reporter, who must be present every moment to capture the record, can interrupt if they were unable to hear something. A stenographic court reporter can also interrupt to keep people from talking over one another or to clear up issues in real time all in their effort to ensure the record is clear.
Technology is quickly advancing, and some of the issues described earlier may seem to become moot points as artificial intelligence and voice recognition continue to develop. However, AI and VR cannot control human emotional behavior, such as stopping a heated argument. And as technology continues to develop for good, it also continues to develop for evil.
The cons to developing technology
Technological advancement brings with it rapid advancement in fraud. Think of recent headings about major companies who have faced security hacks or digital information being held for ransom.
Some advances in technology, even if they’re developed with good intentions, can be used for nefarious reasons. For example, one of the experimental technologies presented at Adobe MAX 2016 was Photoshopping Voiceovers, or VoCos (the demonstration is available on the Adobe Creative Cloud YouTube channel). This technology allows a user to alter the words in audio recordings by typing in new words that come out in the original speaker’s voice. Adobe presented VoCo as a quick solution to fixing errors in voiceovers, but the hacking implications are more worrisome. Suddenly, in an audio-recorded trial or deposition, “John hit the door” becomes “John hit the child,” one of which is a felony.
Technology can now do the same thing with video. Imagine a video of the president saying, “I am initiating a Twitter war” that is, with minimal effort, changed to, “I am initiating a North Korean war.” This is an extreme example, but the same tricks used in fake news can also change an official record. Audio and video recordings of legal proceedings will need to follow a chain of custody similar to murder weapons or DNA evidence, but stenographic court reporters can also play a role in protecting the integrity of the record. While a transcript will be held with the court, a stenographic court reporter will also keep archived copies of all proceedings they cover, as per states’ and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, in a separate, secure location.
There is no room for error or oops moments when it comes to capturing the record. Stenographic court reporters are quasi-judicial officers of the court — something a few pieces of metal and a microphone could never be.
About Phipps Reporting
Phipps Reporting’s principals have been providing exceptional service to the legal community for more than 30 years. The firm delivers worldwide coverage with technical mastery and personal finesse for clients that range from Fortune 500 companies to large, high-profile trials. Phipps Reporting has locations both internationally and across the United States with corporate headquarters in Florida, and an expansive network of over 2,000 court reporters and 500 affiliate firms. For more information, visit www.phippsreporting.com.