Does the lack of court reporting make shorthand a redundant skill?

shorthand sexism!

Interesting stuff coming out of the AJE conference today.  A summing up of the proceeding from the morning over on their website asks Is journalism deserting the courts? A good question and the research around it looks really good especially David Holme’s examination of the ‘marked decline’ in court reporting.

Which got me thinking…and this is me playing devils advocate…

I accept that there are some outlets that do court reporting very well; it hasn’t completly disappeared. But surely it’s now a specialist part of the reporting process.

Doesn’t that mean that one of the core reasons for banging on about the ‘essential’ and defining nature of shorthand is pretty redundant?

Image credit: Shorthand image from Sizemore on flickr

Updates and after mater:

Matt Wiggins posted about his experiences studying for his shorthand exam and got some useful comments on how the new format of the exam is going down with students.

David Higgerson mentioned this post in a post about the broader subject of the NCTJ VS. Universities debate. He picked up on a post by Roy Greenslade which challenged the NCTJ’s ‘right’ to dictate what was taught on Journalism degrees. Cue a meaty comments list with the usual mix of pompous and the positive. All of which, Dave thought, missed the important people in the debate – the students.

I commented that I thought students where at the heart of the debate after all, we all need them. We need students on courses (uni or otherwise). The NCTJ have a board of directors to pay so they need the fees. And the industry need the graduates with the right skills.  But I made no apologies for raising the debate. Without a contemporary discussion of this stuff how can students make an informed decision about whats right for them.?

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24 Replies to “Does the lack of court reporting make shorthand a redundant skill?”

  1. I learned my shorthand thanks to three hours a day at the University of Central Lancashire, plus listening to tapes at night.

    It is still an invaluable skill in my eyes, but sadly, when I use it nowadays, interviewees are surprised because they are used to being interviewed with dictaphones.

    As for court reporting, I once had to put my shorthand notes down my sock because I was being threatened from the back of the court by relatives of the defendent. That doesn’t mean much, but I just liked outsmarting them.

    1. Ah another of Pat’s shorthand army.

      Devils advocate I know. And actually I’m not anti shorthand – wish I could do it. Just constantly thinking about what we teach, what the industry demands and what that all means for what journalists ‘really need’

      It seems like ‘long socks’ might be one requirement. 🙂

  2. I don’t do much court reporting any more, but I still use shorthand every day. When someone invents a dictaphone that costs under a tenner, takes seconds to flick through long conversations, never has battery/technical issues, and has fool-proof, automatic archiving built in (as long as I remember to throw the notebook in my office cupboard) – I’ll buy one 🙂

  3. No, absolutely not.

    As a sometime shorthand teacher, and as a news editor explaining to trainees why getting that 100wpm was important, court reporting was a handy example of the one situation when it’s all or nothing.

    But even for print reporters who never had any intention of stepping foot in court, I’d still argue it’s pretty essential.

    For starters, you still have the legal argument that a shorthand note is acceptable evidence at trial, whereas you’re not allowed to use taped interviews.

    Then there’s the immense practical advantage it gives you. Sure, a taped interview will be word-for-word more accurate. But for a jobbing journalist, who probabably racks up hours worth of interviewing time every day, going through those on tape is a huge task. Not so with your well annotated shorthand record, especially once you’ve picked up the skill to take selective notes.

    And then what happens when you pick up the phone and someone gives you a killer quote – before you’ve managed to switch on your tape recorder? Or that quote comes at the end of the official interview, after you’ve switched it off? Or it’s said in a situation where you don’t happen to have your equipment with you? A scribbled shorthand note made soon afterwards will still suffice – but where’s your tape recording?

    I’m also not sure you’d be able to find a single local or regional newsroom in the country which picked up the tab for running a tape recorder, and providing fresh tapes (which you’d need if you’re going to keep records of all your interviews for a sensible amount of time to avoid being sued without the material to back you up). They all provide pens and notebooks though (well, nearly all . . .).

    Sure, there are reporters who manage without either, but you can generally spot them a mile off as their quotes are either written in journalese (a product of the “would you say this, sir?” style of interviewing) or so stilted you know they’ve been emailed across.

    So yes, if you want to be a productive, accurate and flexible print reporter, I’d say that shorthand is still a pretty essential skill to have.

    Sorry if I’ve gone on, but that question *really* winds me up! How could anyone think otherwise? 😉

  4. Shorthand is certainly useful once learned – scores of my students will attest to that. But “essential”? No. It has become a fetish of newspaper journalism, part of the attempt to make journalism a “profession” in Weber’s definition – a bastion “of narrow and elitist interests” that serve in modern society “as repressive mechanisms which undermine democracy and turn active citizens onto passive consumers.” NCTJ insistence on it just reinforces this position.

    1. Eeek!

      You have kind of touched on part of the resoning behind the question there Tim. Whenever the question is raised, much of the defence rests around the ‘essential’ and defining nature’ of shorthand not its utillity. I’m a firm believer in its utillity – it’s undeniable – but something that, by the very nature of certifying it, is essential?…

  5. I agree with Jo – it is an essential skill, certainly not some elitist trick.

    All of Jo’s reasons are valid, but I should also add I lost count of the number of times I made notes about the person I was interviewing during the interview, notes they could not read, which helped me massively when I was writing the article.

    I also chatted up two girls using shorthand, although not at the same time, when I was a young reporter.

    I was transcribing my notes on a train and in a pub, they were interested in what I was doing, I offered to write their name in shorthand – the rest, as they say, is history.

    Try doing that with a dictaphone!

    1. I don’t disagree with what Jo said but I’m still not sure about essential . Perhaps invlauable.

      Maybe nothing is essential in what I teach on the basis that the options for a young journalist are so wide and maybe invaluable is based on the environment it’s used in. But increasingly (see the post on the value of a journalism degree) I’m asked to give account of why I teach what I teach and what value it has given the time me and the students have together.

      Value, utillity, essential skills. All challenges.

      Oh and chatting up girls with shorthand! I think I’ll mention that to the students as one of the reason for 🙂

  6. Andy,

    Earlier in the day at the AJE Conference, Heather Brooke discussed the case where a judge made a ruling against her recording proceedings in the court. Heather, as a leading FOI and public service reporter, then began bemoaning her lack of shorthand…


    1. I heard that was a topic of conversation at the event. Was it true that it was noted that anyone was yet to find a written precident that made the ban on recording in court ‘official’

  7. The admissability of shorthand in court, which seems to be the major plank in the many discussions there have been of this subject, is a complete red herring. The moment that mechanical/digital recordings are accepted, which they will be, then shorthand becomes redundant, according to its proponents above. The utility argument is actually much stronger.

    Incidentally Napoleon, “I lost count of the number of times I made notes about the person I was interviewing during the interview, notes they could not read, which helped me massively when I was writing the article” sounds *exactly* like an elitist trick to me.

  8. As a Journalism student who is coming to the end of my NCTJ exams I see the question slightly differently.

    Is shorthand essential. Yes. It’s essential to get a job on a paper. Do you really need it once you’re in? That’s the debatable part.

    I recently finished some work experience at my local paper and was quite shocked to discover that they didn’t send any of their reporters to court, ever. They outsourced the copy. Yet, I know from experience that the publication ask for NCTJ qualification including 100wpm shorthand. So I think it is definitely something worth learning if only to get you’re foot in the door

  9. Matt, *cough* You might ant to learn spelling too 🙂

    I don’t have shorthand as my career’s largely been in magazines and I’ve not needed it. There have been times when having it would definitely have been useful but I’ve evolved my own system for taking abbreviated notes anyway, which seems to do the trick. I usually record, but I always, always take notes too. Recorders can and do fail.

  10. Louise *cough* you might want to fix that missing w. 😉

    On my paper, (I do take credit for doing most of this, certainly it was me who started taking advantage of the lists) we collect print-outs once a week from magistrates court which detail the outcome of each day’s hearings from each court. These are invaluable for a number of reasons.

    Firstly, I can go through and put future dates for interesting and locally relevant cases in the diary. This process ensures we get all of the really interesting cases right from the early stages. We can also take a chance that we aren’t missing anything major if no-one goes to court if there is nothing in the diary. And even if we do, we can catch it off that day’s report and attend the next hearing. Cases are rarely, if ever, dealt with in one hearing.

    Another thing is that these court lists are still subject to privilege (admittedly only qualified as opposed to the absolute privilege you get if you attend) and as such can be used to create nibs or 100-word fillers.

    Due to low staff levels at local papers (mine included) this task allows the editor to make realistic judgements as to whether it is worth it for him/her to have a reporter holed up in court all day. Our rival paper misses loads of stuff, simply because they don’t do this, and it doesn’t actually take up that much time.

    As for the shorthand, I would argue that it is essential. Even without court and meetings, what about those times when you pick up the phone, and someone says: “What it is…” and you don’t have a dictophone with a telephone pickup? Or batteries? It’s a piece of cake to get everything down when all you need is a pen and a piece of paper.

  11. Shorthand is invaluable, certainly. In any situation where accuracy is an issue – ie every time you conduct an interview – it’s the cheapest, easiest to set up, most foolproof and failureproof method to ensure accuracy. When you get back to the newsroom it’s the fastest option for transcribing too – selective notes in well annotated shorthand are simple to write up. It’s possible to transcribe the “best bits” of a 1-hour-plus interview in ten minutes flat if you’re up against deadline. No tape recorder or dictaphone offers that convenience.

    And I do think it’s essential too, because a tape recorder is not always turned on. Because tape recorders fail, overheat, get too damp, get clogged with sand. Because some interviewees distrust technology and clam up or refuse to be recorded.

    I’d also add, to Tim, that taking extra notes on your surroundings, the dress and demeanour of your interviewee and so on is a very helpful way of giving yourself accurate details that you need in order to write a good colour piece. Not sure why that’s more of an “elitist trick” than relying on memory and possibly getting it wrong and/or exaggerating for effect.

  12. Shorthand is invaluable not just in courts, but any kind of public/council/open meeting. Often the best quotes are said in the heat of the moment by a councillor/politician and the perhaps more stilted/puff quote you get afterwards is not as good as when they called their opposite number a ‘raving loon’ or something to that effect.

    You can’t use audio recorders very easily in big public meetings. I’ve got my shorthand up to speed and I consider it an essential part of my journalism arsenal.

  13. As a graduate of the Cardiff Magazine course – taught by the lovely Tim Holmes – it wasn’t necessary for us to learn shorthand, but I struggled in each morning and gained my 100wpm, something which I did not appreciate at the time as it was voluntary.

    Now in my first job, I am so grateful I have my shorthand under my belt. Not only is it essential when I am in court, but also when I am interviewing – I find it is the best tool to capture an interviewees words quickly and accurately.

    There’s just no time to transcribe nowadays, everyone is too busy getting to grips with the new tools to worry about a little old dictaphone…

  14. My personal view is that in some areas of journalism, shorthand is as important today as it ever has been. The point about shorthand being used away from the courtroom has been made, but to me it comes down to something else: Can we trust a laptop/audio recorder etc not to fail?

    You kindly mentioned my blog post about the NCTJ v universities debate. I think your post is an example of exactly the kind of debate we need to have about specific skills. The wider NCTJ or not debate, on the other hand, never seems to go anywhere.

  15. Whenever I needed to get my foot in the door for any job, the one in charge, making the decisions at top valued my shorthand. I have been using it for over 33 years and the older I get and more obsolete it becomes, it is more valued. I used it in college to take accurate notes, at work, and now use it to be a Sectetary on various Boards and Committee. Shorthand can open the doors to many opportunities. I am just glad I listened to my teacher in hIgh school who said “You need to practice it often to keep it or you will loose it”. Believe it or not, it was my shorthand that would get me the job before the MBA. There are probably more MBAs standing in line for jobs, but you can work in any job using shorthand in an entry level position.

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