Q. When I watch the TV courtroom show "In Session," they have a court reporter documenting everything that is said on some kind of machine. Sometimes the questioning takes place at a blistering pace. How do they manage to take everything down? Is it something like shorthand? I suspect these court reporters are paid very well for what they do.
-- P.V., of Belleville
A. I still remember the typing class I took in the summer of 1968, a requirement for starting my first job here as a high school sportswriter.
Even in the morning, it could be brutally hot on the third floor of old Belleville West's main building, and those clunky, manual typewriters didn't make things any easier. As a beginner, I'd frequently get two or three keys stuck together so I'd have to quit typing and gently pry them apart, hoping that Miss Mueller didn't hear me muttering under my breath.
How much nicer it would have been to use that court machine known as a "stenotype." These have only 22 keys total (including numerals) and you can press several at once without those messy key collisions I kept battling. The result: A skilled court reporter can record 300 or more words per minute, which is much faster than the average person can speak (160 to 180).
Of course, what the court reporter "records" would look pretty much like a foreign language to most of us. Here's why:
As I mentioned, these machines have only 22 keys, not even one for every letter of the alphabet. Instead, there are two rows with 17 consonants underneath a number bar. At the bottom are four vowel keys -- a, o, e, u. (You know the old saying: There's no "I" in team -- or on stenotypes.)
What court reporters do is type entire words at once by pressing several keys at the same time. The left hand generally types the beginning of a syllable, while the right produces the end. Vowel sounds are produced by the thumbs on that bottom row.
So, if someone says "cat," you'd press "k" with your left hand (nope, there's no c), "a" with a thumb and "t" with your right hand -- all simultaneously.
But that's just the start of the fun. Since some letters don't even exist on keys, you're forced to substitute strange combinations. For example, since there's no "m," reporters may type "ph." And, if a word begins with "b," they may type "pw" because there's no "b" key on the left-hand side of the keyboard, where you start a syllable.
Yet unlike typing class in which everyone is encouraged to hit the same keys with the same fingers, there has been no universal standard of how reporters should spell every word they hear. Since words are spelled phonetically (how they sound), you may find several systems of general rules and guidelines at court-reporting schools. And each person may come up a keystroke or two for common phrases like "May it please the court," etc.
In the past, you'd see a narrow band of paper coming out of the back of the machine with a record of everything the reporter had typed. Later, the reporter would have to translate the gibberish back into recognizable English.
Newer machines, however, are computerized, producing an immediate translation on an LCD screen. This means that once a reporter decides on a personal shorthand system, he or she can program that system into the machine so it recognizes the various keystrokes and can provide an immediate translation.
As you might guess, this system isn't easy to learn. While I became a relatively adept typist in a couple of months, court-reporting school may take three years. Not only do you have to become familiar with the machine, but you also have to take classes in phonetics and English grammar as well as, perhaps, medical and legal terminology. To be certified, you have to reach a speed of 225 words per minute. And to buy your own customized machine may set you back 5K.
For learning all of this, the pay is good but often not spectacular. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay in 2010 for a court reporter was just shy of $23 per hour or $47,700 per year. Of course, it would depend on where you live -- in New York City, the average salary is more than $82,000.
It's also becoming increasingly modernized. The newest trend is the "stenomask." Instead of trying to type the proceedings, you hold a tiny microphone and repeat everything you hear behind a mask that silences your voice. Voice-recognition software can produce a printed transcript instantly.
Hmmm, maybe I should talk my bosses here into buying me one so I could dictate my columns ...
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Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or email@example.com