If you’ve ever watched a courtroom drama on TV, you’ve probably seen someone sitting off to the side, tapping diligently on a strange little machine that looks something like a typewriter. If so, then you’ve seen court reporting in action. Despite the increasing availability of digital recording over the past 25 years, licensed court reporters still play a large part in courtroom proceedings, depositions, and appeals. 

Shorthand Makes Short Work of It

Courts around the world and far back into history have used some method to document court proceedings. Shorthand writing is the most traditional method. In fact, it can be traced to Marcus Tullius Tiro, who took notes and handled finances for his master, the great Roman philosopher Cicero, circa 63 BC. He developed shorthand to keep pace with the speeches he transcribed, and the system was expanded upon by medieval monks before starting to fall out of favor around the year 1100 AD. Some English versions of shorthand were developed in the meantime, but didn’t really take off until 1772, when Thomas Gurney was appointed the first official shorthand writer for the English government.

All throughout Europe, people employed various shorthand methods, many of which soon made their way to America. We can thank John Robert Gregg for some of this, who founded shorthand schools in Boston and Chicago. His version of shorthand, published in 1893, remained mainstream until the stenograph machine started to become common. 

Patented by an American court reporter, Miles Bartholmew, in 1879, the stenograph machine didn’t immediately become widespread or commercially viable to mass-produce. However, reporters used variations of the Bartholomew model until 1937. Continual improvements in speed and accuracy transformed these machines from Morse code-like dot and dash output to highly-efficient devices where reporters could press multiple keys at a time to represent syllables or even entire words with one stroke. Throughout these changes in technology, court reporting as a profession embraced and adapted to new methods and remained vital as ever to legal proceedings. 

Videos, Tape Recorders, and Computers, Oh My!

As the Internet rose to prominence in the 90s, video and audio recording within the court reporting industry also grew in popularity. Most notably, a 1992 report by the California Judicial Council estimated that courtrooms could save $44,000 per year simply by video recording the proceedings. Courtrooms interested in saving money looked into digital recording methods to capture the proceedings. Some in the industry feared that court stenographers would become obsolete. 

But once again, the industry showed its ability to adapt. As computers became small enough to carry around and ran more sophisticated software than a simple word processor, court reporters integrated these technologies seamlessly into their trade. Stenograph machines now plugged directly into laptops, translating shorthand into English on the screen in real time. Video and audio recording didn’t eradicate the stenographer. After all, even if a court record is digitally recorded from beginning to end, a written transcript is still necessary.   

Not only do court reporters transcribe recordings after the fact for some cases, they still sit in on live proceedings and transcribe as it unfolds, as the profession has done for hundreds of years. Court reporters also make use of “stenomasks” —a covered microphone that feeds directly to a computer running voice-recognition software for immediate output. The court reporter is then responsible for cleaning up typos and grammar mistakes, inputting the correct case and appearance information, and finally producing a perfected final transcript.  

Even the most sophisticated transcription programs can’t be trusted to complete tasks without supervision, so a human still must clarify, verify, and clean up the typos and bad grammar that voice recognition generates. Court reporters are also entrusted with documenting gestures and expressions, something that neither audio tapes or transcription programs can capture.

200 Years and Counting: Still a Noble Profession

The history of court reporting in the US goes back to the birth of American courts over two centuries ago. Having an accurate, official record of proceedings is not only important for everyone involved at the time, but for posterity’s sake, as well. Court reporters are highly-trained, impartial professionals that record events without bias, which is a vital aspect of any historical record.

Court reporters are highly skilled professionals who are proficient in English grammar, transcription, AND stenography shorthand. They are expected to be fast and accurate and must be certified by a qualifying college and sometimes even licensed by the state in which they work. While the programs to teach this profession may vary from school to school, some requirements are standardized to maintain the quality of the profession. 

According to the National Court Reporters Association, a student must be able to achieve the following standard in machine shorthand 

  •     Literary: 180 WPM
  •     Jury Charge: 200 WPM
  •     Testimony or Q&A: 225 WPM
  •     Additionally, an accuracy of 97% is required.

While technology has certainly changed the way court reporters and stenographers carry out their duties, the need for this important task remains. Even with advances in technology that many feared would make stenographers obsolete, in reality, it has widened the opportunities available. Captioning of real-time broadcasts and providing live transcripts to assist the hard-of-hearing are demanding services that only the most skilled professional can provide. 

Court reporters are no less necessary now than they ever were, and this profession can be an exciting way to sit on history as it happens! Please contact Connor Reporting, A Veritext Company to utilize our services today.

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