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January 18, 2004

Broadcast captioning luring court reporters

From: Coshocton Tribune, OH - Jan 18, 2004

Captions provided by the following

By CARY ASHBY Staff Writer


Lynn Els prepares to demonstrate some of the captioning work she does from her Warsaw home. Els also works as a freelance court reporter for the Coshocton County Common Pleas Court.

WARSAW -- Freelance court reporter Lynn Els of Warsaw said writing captions for local television news broadcasts is much more challenging than doing national news.

"National news is a lot slower- paced," she said about doing her homework assignments for the University of Mississippi.

Many veteran court reporters, like Els, work 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. My brother didn't even know," said Lisa Wiesman of Cincinnati.

Wiesman, a court reporter for 18 years, said she was enticed by the flexible hours of her new career as a broadcast captioner.

Els, who freelances for Coshocton County Common Pleas Court, said the strategy in writing captions is different than court reporting.

"My responsibility as a court reporter is to be verbatim. I have to make sure I get every word. I'm not as concerned if it translates properly at the time," Els explained.

In contrast, she said closed captioning emphasizes readability and accuracy. Els said she can edit her court transcripts later, but she doesn't have that luxury with captioning.

"Once it's on the screen, it's there. You can't have it back," said Els, a court reporter since 1985.

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

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.

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

What they do

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 about the process.

Els said there are two categories of closed captioning: live and pre-scripted. In live captioning, several words appear on the screen at a time, she said. Els said pre-scripted captioning "comes in chunks."

A mother of four children between the ages of six and 15, Els said her Ole Miss curriculum requires her to practice two hours each day and five on the weekends.

Years ago, people who wanted to see broadcast captions had to buy devices to hook up to their televisions. They 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.

The world record for transcribing was set by Nat Behren in 1922 at 350 words, according to the Ohio Court Reporters Association.

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

There's no deleting the mistakes.

Preparation time and challenges

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.

Els averages about one hour of preparation time to research unfamiliar terms and names.

She said she then puts those words in her "job dictionary," a smaller computer memory program for specific events. Job dictionaries are also used for covering topics such as sports, weather and religion.

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,"' she said.

In those instances, the transcriber can type "unintelligible" or "inaudible," use a phonetic spelling or skip a name in favor of a general reference to a player. If they fall behind, they eliminate less-essential parts of a sentence and summarize.

Another challenge, Els said is possibly using an offensive word -- which she called "no-no words" -- instead of a similarly spelled common word. For example, she said captioners can change the meaning of a show's scene by mistakenly using the word "gay" instead of "guy."

"I have to make sure the offensive words are hard to hit," she said.

Captioners have some say over their hours, which typically involve some weekend and late-night stints.

Wiesman tries to work when her children are in school and her husband is home to care for their baby. She instructs her children to stay out of the room when she is working, but sometimes they slip her a note asking for attention. Her response?

"I give them the evil eye," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


At a glance

On the Web

National Court Reporters Association:

National Captioning Institute:


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