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Careers in Court Reporting and Broadcast Captioning

The National Court Reporters Association provides the following information on court reporting and broadcast captioning careers.

There are times and circumstances when we need to know and be able to research exactly what was said, by whom. This is especially true in the field of law, where property, freedom and even lives depend on who says what in pretrial depositions and in court.

There are other occasions when exact records of proceedings are valuable, such as administrative hearings, conventions and stockholder meetings.

And the process of converting spoken words into readable text has important applications in the growing field of television broadcast captioning, which enables millions of people with hearing loss to follow and understand live television programming, including news shows, sports events and emergency announcements.

Capturing and preserving important spoken information is the realm of work that falls under the general heading of "court reporting." It's a profession that traces its roots to a scribe who recorded speeches in the Roman senate more than 2,000 years ago (one of his shorthand devices, the ampersand, is on your computer keyboard). But it's a profession that's also as modern as today.

The court reporting profession has evolved over the years. But did you know that it can be argued that the task of recording the spoken word has existed since the cavemen?

Here are some quick facts to help you get acquainted with the possibilities:

  • Court reporters (including deposition reporters and captioners) earn an average of nearly $62,000 a year.

  • There are an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 court, deposition and captioning reporters in the U.S.

  • The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that job
    opportunities in this field will grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2010.

  • Only about 27 percent of the court reporters in the U.S. actually work in court. Most of the rest are freelance reporters hired by attorneys to report depositions of potential trial witnesses.

  • Captioning of live television shows is done by specially trained court reporters
    called stenocaptioners. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 and FCC rules mandate that more programming be captioned to so that people with hearing loss can be informed through television. The demand for jobs in broadcast captioning is expected to triple by 2006.

What exactly do court reporters do in the legal field?
Whether they work in court or as freelance deposition reporters, court reporters capture the words spoken by everyone during the proceeding and, if requested by one or more of the parties, prepare a verbatim transcript of it. Attorneys use deposition transcripts to prepare for trial. And the transcript of the trial helps safeguard the legal process: When litigants want to exercise their right to appeal, they will use the transcript to provide an accurate record of what transpired during their case.

Official court reporters and deposition reporters are front and center at controversial or famous cases - criminal trials, millionaire divorces, government corruption trials, lawsuits against everyone from rock stars to business leaders. A court reporter not only records history but also contributes to it through realtime technology that keeps all parties in litigation working at a swift pace and that enables counsel to quickly analyze each day's events.

What is broadcast captioning and how does that relate to court reporting?
Broadcast captioners, also called stenocaptioners, use court reporter skills on the stenotype machine to provide captions of live television programs for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers, through realtime technology that instantly produces readable English text. Stenocaptioners work for local stations and for national channels and networks captioning news, emergency broadcasts, sports events and other programming.

The federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 has some very specific mandates for closed captioning of local programs around the country with phase-in dates in 2002, 2004 and 2006. What this means for the reporting community is an enormous increase in the demand for realtime captioners to cover local news broadcasts all around the country, mornings, afternoons and evenings. We are already experiencing a severe shortage of qualified people in certain areas of the country and so have developed technology to be able to do the job from a remote site. In other words, a captioner in Atlanta, Georgia, can transmit their captions via modem to a television station in Lexington, Kentucky. This need for remote site captioning talent is only going to increase as we approach the final 2006 deadline set by the Federal Communications Commission. Moreover, the federal government has realized the importance of eliminating the shortage of captioners. In 2001, fourteen NCRA-approved programs received a portion of $5.75 million in federal grants to help continue or develop captioning training programs.

What else do reporters do?
A version of the captioning process called Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) allows court reporters to provide more personalized services for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Most deaf people lose their hearing after acquiring reading and speaking skills, and many of them do not become as proficient with sign language as they are reading text. CART reporters accompany deaf clients as needed -- for example, to college classes -- to provide an instant conversion of speech into text using the stenotype machine linked to a laptop computer.

How much money can a court reporter earn?
A survey of members of the National Court Reporters Association in 1999 indicated the average income for respondents was $61,830. However, reporters' earnings depend on location, level of training, level of certification achieved, areas of specialization and other factors. In court reporting, earning potential often is limited only by the amount of time a reporter is willing to devote to the profession. Official court reporters usually earn a salary and a per-page fee for preparing transcripts. Freelance reporters are paid per job and receive a per-page fee for transcripts.

Salaried positions for stenocaptioners can range from $45,000 to $75,000, and independent contractors can earn from $36,000 to more than twice that amount, depending on the number of on-air hours. CART reporters can earn between $35,000 and $65,000 per year.

Where can I learn to become a court reporter or broadcast captioner?
The knowledge and skills to become a court reporter or stenocaptioner are taught at more than 150 reporter training programs, including proprietary schools, community colleges and four-year universities. NCRA has a complete that have met the general requirements and minimum standards for reporter training programs set by the National Court Reporters Association. Many of these programs offer distance-learning options, so even if there is no reporting school near you, you can still attend class and obtain reporter or captioner training if you have access to the Internet or live near a satellite videoconference center.

I'm interested in court reporting as a career possibility, but what effect will technology have on the future of the profession?
No one has an infallible crystal ball. But the National Court Reporters Association expects the need for reporters to remain strong for the foreseeable future. A trained reporter using the latest realtime computer-aided transcription processes remains the fastest, most accurate way to turn spoken information into readable, searchable, permanent text.

This ability continues to have application in courts and in pretrial depositions, where most reporters work, and, increasingly, in the specialized areas of creating captions of live television programming and providing CART services for deaf and hard-of-hearing college students. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandates a tremendous increase over the next few years in the amount of TV programming that must be captioned. And deaf and hard-of-hearing students in colleges and universities all over the country have the right, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, to request the accommodation of realtime translation to assist them in their classes while attending school. One of the marvelous advances with emerging technology in the last decade is that we have eliminated distance as a barrier to access. Regardless of where you are, if you have access to telephone lines, you can provide this service; and conversely, wherever you are, no matter how remote a location, you can receive this service.

The Internet will affect how reporting services are provided as online video technology improves and more and more meetings, college classes, even depositions take place on the Internet. As in the face-to-face world, reporters will be in demand online to provide instantaneous text of those meetings in a searchable, easy-to-access medium.

Regarding voice recognition, no expert is yet predicting that we are anywhere close to having systems that recognize multiple speakers. Court systems are under great pressure to reduce costs, so virtually all of them have installed tape recorders in some courts. However, court reporters offer technological advantages of their own, namely the ability to produce readable text in realtime -- essentially the voice-to-print capability that voice recognition supposedly delivers, only reporters are more accurate.

Where can I learn more about court reporting?
Visit the National Court Reporters Association's (NCRA) website. There you will see information that working reporters find useful, as well as more about the history of reporting, the technology involved and more.

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