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January 10, 2004

Broadcast captioning jobs luring court reporters

From: Marion Star, OH - Jan 10, 2004


FAIRFIELD, Ohio (AP) - Court reporters are moving from in front of the bench to in front of the tube in the expanding market of broadcast captioning for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

An estimated 500 people around the country, mostly working out of their homes, type the captions that appear on the screen for "American Idol," the Home Shopping Network, "Court TV" and other programs.

"A lot of people don't realize how they get up there," said Lisa Wiesman, a court reporter for 18 years who was enticed by the flexible hours of her new career as a broadcast captioner. "My brother didn't even know."

The government is requiring that closed captioning be offered on new programming beginning Jan. 1, 2006. The National Court Reporters Association gave its first exam in November for certification as a broadcast captioner.

Kathy DiLorenzo, who oversees recruiting at captioning company VITAC Corp. of Canonsburg, Pa., estimates that 90 percent of captioners were previously court reporters.

Wiesman, 40, a suburban Cincinnati mother of three, works 22 hours a week, captioning newscasts, football games and tennis matches, cooking and shopping shows, among other programs. Her stenographer machine is hooked into a computer in a bedroom-turned-office, and she listens on a headset to an audio feed as she watches shows as they are broadcast.

"It looks like we're behind, but we're seeing it as you're seeing it," Wiesman said.

Years ago, people who wanted to see broadcast captions had to buy devices to hook up to their television sets. Televisions now can automatically bring in captions, unless the user clicks on a menu to turn off the feature.

Captioners work faster than the flow of words. They are certified at speeds up to 260 words per minute, while the typical rate of conversation is 150 to 170 words a minute.

Captioners compile lists of commonly used terms in their machines' computer memories. Each term has a stenographic symbol, which when struck sends the corresponding words onto the television screen.

There's no deleting the mistakes, which go out immediately.

Although they research their subjects - often on an event's Web site - captioners still can be forced to improvise. Foreign names might be pronounced in foreign accents; speakers sometimes compete against each other or background noise.

Wiesman is a pro football fan but knows a colleague who doesn't follow the sport - or its jargon - yet still captions games.

"Sometimes you're wondering whether they said 'shovel pass' or 'shuffle pass,"' Wiesman said.

The transcriber can type "unintelligible" or "inaudible," use a phonetic spelling or skip a name in favor of a general reference to a player, for instance.

A court reporter for 27 years, B.J. Quinn, of Tallahassee, Fla., began captioning two years ago. She said she feels a duty to help hearing-impaired viewers understand what they seeing, especially in today's terrorist-sensitive atmosphere.

"Imagine if you couldn't hear and you were seeing images of 9-11 with buildings falling down and you didn't know what was going on - how terrifying that would be," said Quinn, 50.

In part because of the shift to broadcast captioning, there are now more job openings for court reporters than for captioners, DiLorenzo said.

VITAC, owned by WordWave, may hire four to eight captioners this year. But another WordWave unit, Boston-based LegaLink, could hire 50 court reporters and that wouldn't necessarily meet the demand, she said.

"We're in need in every major market in the country," DiLorenzo said.

The NCRA, based in Vienna, Va., estimates there are 50,000 to 60,000 court reporters nationally.

VITAC and the National Captioning Institute Inc., of Vienna, Va., also have captioners on staff.

About 25 schools nationally offer real-time reporting programs, generally for two years. The first year covers common requirements before the students split off to focus on captioning, court reporting or communication access real-time translation (CART).

In CART work, a transcriber might take notes for a deaf college student or a hard-of-hearing employee at a company meeting.

Skilled real-time reporters willing to work at least 40 hours a week can make $100,000 a year and up, leaders in the field say. Salaries can average around $60,000 to $65,000, DiLorenzo said.

On the Net:

National Court Reporters Association:

National Captioning Institute:


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