Why Do Courts Need Stenographers?
These are some of the questions I asked myself during jury duty this week. Why do courts need stenographers? What exactly does a stenographer actually do? Couldn't the same job be done by a video camera? I wish I could type that fast.
Besides the last statement, I will tackle each question one by one. Despite my own doubts, I've come to realize that stenographers are essential parts of the legal system. In fact, if you need a highly accurate account of a meeting, debate, or proceedure you really can't do better than a stenographer.
Why do courts need stenographers?
While in the courtroom a stenographer's job is to transcribe most if not all court proceedings. This may include transcription of all testimony, arguments and rulings as they occur. Now understand that transcriptions are incredibly important. A review of court transcriptions can bring new light to older testimonies, strengthen/weaken arguments, or even change the tide of a case entirely. Therefore, it is important that the stenographer be as accurate and detailed as possible.
Furthermore, understand that in many court cases, the court testimonies are public record. The best way to pass on this information is through written transcription. For example, have you ever noticed a court case where the judge banned any form of media for fear it would influence the court's decision. In this situation, the most reliable record is obviously the hard-working stenographer.
It is important not to confuse what a stenographer does with that of dictation. Dictation is a mostly outdated practice, among companies/corporations, where administrative assistants or secretaries prepare memos, letters and other documents that demand the recording of another's voice.
What exactly does a stenographer do?
The "speed of human speech" is often estimated to be 180 words per minute. If you have every tried to take notes in class from an instructor verbatim, you know that it is nearly impossible with the standard computer keyboard much less mitigate errors along the way.
Stenographer's solve this problem by employing a combination of tehcnology and technique. First, Stenographer's use a form of typing called shorthand (or shortform) to keep up with the speed of human speech. For example, a common courtroom phrase may be "Will the defendant please rise," for which the stenographer may already have memorized the shorthand type WDPR. Professional stenographers will memories hundreds of these shorthand abbreviations during training and probably hundreds more afterwards.
Secondly, they use a machine called a short-hand machine or simply stenotype (shown above). In simplistic terms, the stenotype is a minimalist keyboard which omits certain vowels and consonants in favor of chord keys which can instantly produce phonetic sounds like "-ize" or "th" without typing letter individually. If you are interested, there is a video below demonstrating how these machines work in detail.
With training, stenographers can reach speeds ranging from 275 to 300 wpm (words per minute). (Fun Fact: The fastest official speed for a stenographer of American English maybe 375 wpm.) Training can range anywhere from 6 months to 6 years depending on what capacity you wish to be a stenographer. There are specific schools that train individuals to become certified stenographers. However, there are also an increasing number of business schools that will provide stenotype training along with their regular coursework.
You should also know that stenographers work in more places than just the courts. Stenographers are fairly common in the business world. During company board meetings or quarterly earnings meetings, stenographers are used to provide a permanent record of company minutes. Some organizations and businesses want stenographers at their conventions; and certain city or state municipalities request their presence at public hearings.
How A Court Reporting (Steno Machine) Works:
Couldn't the same job be done by a video camera. (What is the future of the profession?)
The answer is more complicated that just yes or no. On the one hand, stenographer give a lot of procedural and record-keeping benefits that the current state of technology simply cannot provide. However, the shrinking budgets of courtrooms across America make the use of technology quite appealing. Below we look at both sides of the debate in more detail.
The Irreplaceable Benefits of the Court Reporter:
Despite appearances, a court stenographers job involves more than just typing really, really, really fast. The most professional of court stenographers are taught to focus on reading a person's lips, body language and other cues. This will often give a more accurate description of court proceedings than a simple video recording. Also, stenographers are taught to filter out "extraneous noise." In a stenographer's transcript, a rustling piece of paper, a person's cough, the tapping of shoes, all these little distraction are left out in the transcript so that no person's voice falls off the record. This is something that a video camera (or any modern recording device) would do very poorly. Moreover, in many court districts the stenographer has the authority to stop court proceedings if the person on the stand is mumbling or can't speak clearly enough.
As a precaution, you will also find that manystenographers use video and/or audio recorders during court proceedings. They later use those recordings to correct minor mistakes and make their transcripts even more accurate. Whew! That's still a lot of work...
The Rolling March of Techonology:
With technology rapidly improving and courtroom budgets gradually shrinking in both the U.S. and United Kingdom, advanced audio and video technology has been able to gain a strong foothold in the courtrooms of both legal systems. Over the often vocal objections of court officials, to date six U.S. states have all or almost all of their court proceedings documented solely with technology. On the bright side, so far most of the changes have occurred in the lower courts (small claims, traffic court, etc). As one texas stenographer Mark Kislingbury [Reference 1] said in an interview given to the BBC, "In important cases...you really need human there."
1.) In Stenography A Dying Art -- BBC - Chris Summers [Link]