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February 4, 2004

Captioning lures court reporters

From: Casa Grande Valley Newspapers, AZ - Feb 4, 2004

By JOHN NOLAN, Associated Press Writer

FAIRFIELD, Ohio - 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, most 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.

It allows the 40-year-old suburban Cincinnati mother of three to work 22 hours a week, captioning a wide variety of programs: newscasts, football games, tennis matches, cooking and shopping shows. Her stenographer machine is hooked into a computer in a bedroom-turned-office, and she listens on a headset to an audio feed while watching shows as they are broadcast.

The government has been phasing in closed captioning since 2000, and is requiring that it be offered to virtually all new programming beginning Jan. 1, 2006. The National Court Reporters Association gave its first exam in November for certification as a broadcast captioner.

The organization estimates there are 50,000 to 60,000 court reporters nationally.

Kathy DiLorenzo, who oversees recruiting at captioning company VITAC Corp. of Canonsburg, Pa., estimates that 90 percent of captioners were previously court reporters. They have some say over their hours, which typically involve some weekend and late-night shifts.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

If they fall behind, they eliminate less-essential parts of a sentence and summarize. While a court reporter must produce a verbatim translation, a captioner is supplying just enough narration for the listener to keep up with the images.

On the other hand, a court reporter often can print out and review a transcript before submitting it for the record.

Conversations can change direction quickly, said Kay Frazier, a teacher who returned from retirement to help shape an expanded real-time reporting program at Clark State Community College in Springfield.

"You're taking down people's language," she said. "When there's down time, the broadcasters will chat. They chat about everything."

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.

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.

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 in class or a hard-of-hearing employee at a company meeting.

Clark State recently expanded its 33-year-old court reporting program to offer captioning and CART training, building a new studio that opened in September with captioner's work stations and Internet research sites.

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