Why The Digital Revolution Won’t Put Court Reporters Out of a Job

The world is becoming increasingly digital. Every industry seems to be incorporating some form of digital automation to save time and money. 

Automation is understandable in some industries, but not in others. The court system, for example, doesn’t seem to be a good fit for automation. At least not inside the courtroom. While there are programs that pay people to become online jurors in mock trials, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a real trial with a remote jury. 

The court system requires the physical presence of all players in order to function optimally. The human element is critical in the courtroom, especially when it comes to documenting court proceedings. However, some people are concerned that digital court reporting will replace traditional stenographers. From an inside perspective, that’s probably not going to happen.

Accurate court reporting is best done manually

Court reporters exist to provide accurate transcripts of what is said and done in the courtroom and other legal proceedings. Traditionally, court reporters have always used a stenograph machine to document proceedings manually. However, courts have recently been experimenting with digital stenography and it hasn’t been going well.

Courts that move to digital reporting learn the hard way, and many switch back to traditional stenography after experiencing devastating consequences with digital tools. For example, a Hawaii court lost nearly 100 grand jury indictments due to a tape recorder malfunction. Other common problems include inaudible sections, long gaps, and sometimes court personnel forget to turn on the digital recorder. There’s also a possibility someone might intentionally ‘forget’ to record court proceedings. When a digital tape is the only record, these mistakes can’t be fixed.

The potential for devastating errors when using digital tools makes manual court reporting indispensable.

When digital recordings fail, there’s no recovery

Using a digital recorder in a courtroom might save the courts money, but sometimes those recordings fail. When a digital recording fails, recovery isn’t possible. For instance, James Nichols – the brother of Oklahoma City bombing suspect Terry Nichols – had a private hearing that was tape recorded. In 1995, the Detroit Free Press won an order to unseal that record but the tape was blank

Manual stenography maintains flow in the courtroom

There’s one critical reason manual stenography won’t be entirely replaced by digital tools. During court proceedings, many judges have a tablet computer that streams the content recorded by the stenographer in real-time. Judges frequently reference this information to remind witnesses of previous statement and review comments being disputed. Without a stenographer, nobody can verify what was actually stated, which makes it harder to call out inconsistencies and outright lies.

The only way a digital recording can stream data in real-time is through speech-to-text conversion. Speech-to-text technology is far from accurate. Even if speech-to-text technology were perfect, its accuracy would depend on everyone in the courtroom speaking loud and clear and being fitted with a high-quality microphone.

Digital court reporting costs more to the public

Courts might save thousands of dollars by using digital recorders, but there’s one major flaw: it passes the cost onto the public. It doesn’t cost much to get a copy of a tape, but it will cost money to have that tape transcribed. The cost of transcription can be more expensive than getting a copy of a report from a court reporter. 

Court reporters are in high demand

People thought stenographers would be replaced by technology, so there haven’t been many new students entering the field over the last decade. Now there’s a shortage and it’s time for a change. 

Karen Santucci, Vice President of the New York State Court Reporters Association told The Chief, “we are working hard to get people to know this is a wonderful profession and we need people desperately. This is a career that just takes two years – you don’t need to go away to college for four years.”

Digital court reporting won’t put traditional stenographers out of business anytime soon. Even as more lower courts move to digital recording, there will always be a demand in the higher courts for professional stenographers. Courts hearing high profile cases can’t afford to risk blank or inaudible recordings.


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