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January 18, 2003

Order in the court: Reporter provides valuable service

From: Newton Kansan, KS - 18 Jan 2003

Reporting industry surviving changes

By Chris Strunk
Newton Kansan

"Tphou s t taoeupl tpo aul g phepb to kph to t aeud f thaeur kupb fplt."

Don't try and figure it out.

There are trained professionals who handle that.

It's easy, said Jana McKinney, court reporter for the Harvey County District Court for the past seven years.

"Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country."

McKinney sees that stuff every day. She can translate it in her sleep. She can type those words -- and make sense out of them later for those who need them -- as fast as you can say them.

McKinney, one of just 2,700 registered merit reporters in the country, is at the top of her game in an industry that has both thrived and suffered during the past few years.

The infusion of technological advances in reporting systems and the pressures on the telecommunications industry to comply with federal captioning requirements have been tempered by tightening budgets in judicial systems across the country.

The result is a mixed bag of sorts for people like McKinney with the skills to record exactly what people say while they're saying it.

"We used to say they were the guardians of the record," said Peter Wacht, senior director of communications and public affairs with the National Court Reporters Association. "Now, they've become guardians of the spoken word."

The demand for captioners -- who often work as freelancers or for large specialized companies -- has increased during the past few years as the television industry gears up to be completely captioned by 2006.

Captioners and court reporters use basically the same skills to reproduce in writing conversations as they are happening.

McKinney has been offering the judges and attorneys in Harvey County District Court such real-time reporting since 2000.

While budget cuts have forced some states to experiment with 100 percent machine recording technology to cut the costs of employing court reporters, the judges in Harvey County agree the services a court reporter offers are priceless.

"It's a better form of justice," said Judge Carl Anderson. "It allows you to do a better job of conducting court proceedings."

Anderson said having a court reporter with the ability to write in real-time what is spoken during proceedings, especially trials, has several advantages to tape recordings.

Chief among them, Anderson said, is a judge's flexibility to evaluate more than words.

"I'm doing a lot of different things (during proceedings)," Anderson said. "You judge more than what's coming out of someone's mouth."

McKinney types on the steno machine words spoken in court. With real-time reporting, the words are then translated onto a computer screen often used by the presiding judge.

If the judge wants to review the exact form of a question or an objection, he can read it immediately on the computer screen.

"It allows the flexibility to immediately be able to look back and see what's been reported," Anderson said.

It also provides an easier way to give juries read-backs during deliberations.

"It's extremely valuable," Anderson said.

McKinney made her services even more valuable recently when she received additional certification through the National Court Reporters Association. Passing the registered merit reporter exam, McKinney became one of a handful of court reporters with such certification.

To earn the distinction, McKinney took a 100-question written exam accompanied by a skills test that evaluates performances in three areas. The literary portion requires reporting at 200 words per minute. The jury charge part of the test requires 240 words per minute. The testimony questions and answers section requires 260 words per minute. McKinney also successfully transcribed the shorthand notes from each leg of the exam to become an advanced-level court reporter.

Comparatively, an average conversation takes place at about 180 words per minute.

McKinney has come a long way since she first abandoned her plan to become a nurse after she graduated from Newton High School in 1988.

"I found out I didn't have the stomach to deal with that intense stuff," McKinney said of nursing.

A college roommate's sister was a court reporter, and McKinney soon became interested.

After two years of school, she began working for a judge in Wichita in 1991. McKinney said learning the reporting technique isn't difficult. The first few months of school are spent learning basic shorthand. The rest of the time is spent honing that skill.

The steno machine is a bit like a typewriter. It has 21 keys and a number bar. Words are written phonetically. For example, McKinney said, "aoeu" is the phonetic equivalent of the long i sound. The letters are typed with a single stroke of four keys.

McKinney said she practiced by watching television and reporting the conversations. She especially remembers practicing while watching the Oprah Winfrey talk show and the Oliver North hearings.

McKinney transferred to Harvey County in 1996.

She said court proceedings are often interesting.

"It's intriguing," McKinney said. "It's something different every day. People here are great to work with."

© 2003 Newton Kansan