At last, the humans win one. Court reporting, a skill that seemed destined to be replaced by electronic tape recorders, is making a comeback — and bringing a lot of very good jobs.
Once upon a time, the fast-tapping typers — who must hit 225 words-per-minute with 95% accuracy to be deemed competent — were a ubiquitous sight across the city’s court system.
Hunched over mini-typewriters with boxy keyboards that spewed out a ticker-tape of courtroom dialogue, court reporters were there to catch everything, from soft, nuanced questioning to rapid-fire cross-examinations.
They were a fixture in every sort of courtroom drama, both in real life and on TV’s “Perry Mason” and early “Law & Order” episodes, drawing attention whenever a judge or an attorney demanded, “Readback, please.”
Demand for live court reporters faded in the 1990s, when budget cuts prompted many of the city’s courts to switch to electronic recorders and farm out the tapes to inexpensive freelance typists.
With the jobs went the classes in how to use a stenotype — a special keyboard that only has 22 keys.
Yet even as that happened, the realization slowly dawned on many court administrators that tape recorders couldn’t fully replace human beings after all — especially when the machines occasionally didn’t get turned on.
“There have been many, many instances in the past when recordings have failed, the machinery didn’t work, or it just wasn’t turned on due to human error,” said Eric Allen, president of the Association of Supreme Court Reporters.
“It’s not really cost-effective then because you have to do the whole proceeding over again.”
The practice of outsourcing courtroom tapes for transcribing — sometimes to transcriptionists in other countries — proved problematic too, he said.
“If you don’t have that human interaction, it can be hard to tell who is speaking, it can be impossible to decipher legalese … It’s just not that easy,” he said, noting that nobody wants transcripts dotted with “inaudible” in missing sections.
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