Should courts allow digital/tape devices?

The merits of shorthand vs tape recorders is not a new one. However, it is a debate that appears to be ongoing, with Roy Greenlsade recently writing on his blog that he would like courts to allow reporters to bring in tape/digital recorders.

His argument starts with an MP being caught saying something he wished he hadn’t on tape. Greenslade states: “He could not deny having said it because his words were on tape.” However, Greenslade asks, what would have happened if the unwise statement had only been captured in a shorthand note? If the MP claimed he had been misquoted (not uncommon), would the shorthand note be trusted? If so, by who, and to what degree?

His main points are that shorthand is a less trusted means of capturing what was said than a tape/digital device, that shorthand is a pain to learn and that people develop their own shorthands as they use it (to the extent that, he says, most shorthand users gradually develop a “personal shorthand that only they really understand”).

I think he is right on all three points. Shorthand is less respected than it once was. That’s partly because it is less prevalent in society per se and, in a world of increasing, rolling, 24-hour visual media, our relationship with the written word has changed. It is difficult to learn. Teeline is far easier to learn than Pitman, but it’ll still take about four months to get to 100wpm. And yes, we all develop our own “shorthands” (though most people can read the shorthand of others and work out the idiosyncrasies as they go).

Given all this, Greenslade asks the central question thus: “In this age of sophisticated recording devices, is shorthand any longer worth all the time and trouble it takes to learn it?”

He appears to be saying no, and calling on the courts to allow reporters to sit in with digital/tape devices.

I’ve seen lawyers and judges sitting in court with laptops for a few years now and cannot really understand why us reporters cannot do the same. Neither can I understand why, if the second component of justice is that it is seen to be done, why the courts would not allow for every means of capturing what is said in court to be used – visual or sound recording etc.

However, I do not, and never have, seen the tape vs shorthand question as an either/or issue. I use shorthand because it is useful, quick, simple and not susceptible to the vagaries of electronic circuitry. It has helped me do my job quickly and efficiently for many years. For most general reporting purposes shorthand is absolutely the perfect means of taking a note of what is said, what has happened etc.

When a story is more sensitive or the interviewee potentially more difficult (potentially litigious) I have used tape as well as shorthand. Why? Because impugning a journalist’s integrity with claims of being misquoted is one of the most common fall-back positions of the caught out. It makes sense, where problems are foreseen, to use tape as well.

I would not want to use tape for every interview because I would struggle to get my job done. Listening back over reels of tape and taking down the words needed is an unnecessary doubling up of the reporting process.

So, yes, I’m with Greenslade on encouraging the courts to allow journalists to use whatever recording devices they choose. I however, would probably still use shorthand for 99% of the time.

What do you think?

3 thoughts on “Should courts allow digital/tape devices?

  • February 10, 2011 at 11:59 am

    I chose to learn shorthand AFTER experience life with a tape recorder. Listening back over tape is laborious, time consuming and soul destroying. AND, to transcribe a tape effectively you NEED shorthand anyway!

    Learning shorthand is a no-brainer.

  • February 16, 2011 at 8:57 am

    Learning shorthand takes time like any skill. Once it is learned it is learned. If you compare the amount of time it takes to learn compared with the amount of time you’d waste listening back endlessly to tapes, I think you’ll find shorthand a sound investment.

    Like any skill though, you need to keep on top of it. I know many reporters whose shorthand speeds have fallen (mine certainly has) in speed so one does wonder whether courts might have reason to question our note-taking abilities. Yearly tests might help demonstrate proficiency to those with little knowledge of shorthand? But who would pay for that?

  • September 24, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    I’ve been fighting the corner for shorthand for many, many years and I’ve come to one conclusion. Those that say ‘shorthand is no longer needed’ or ‘we can use tape recorders now instead of shorthand’ are always the people who don’t write shorthand. If they did, they would know how valuable it is in organisations, for administrators, for journalists and anyone who has to take information down quickly. I was once asked if it anyone knew of an electronic recording device that could be put into a meeting room to take minutes of a meeting (rather than a skilled shorthand secretary doing it). What a silly question! Until computers or recording devices can be designed with common sense, a sound command of English and the ability to listen to several people talking at once, then shorthand is here to stay! Yes, it does take time to learn, but Teeline is a logical system with high speed potential. I obtained 160 wpm in Teeline shorthand, so can poo-poo those who also say that Teeline isn’t a proper shorthand system. There’s not been a day when I’ve not used my shorthand, it’s keep me in work since the age of 14 and is one of the most valuable things I’ve ever learnt! The skilled shorthand writer can take down only what is needed – a tape recorder cannot do this, and that’s why shorthand is still very much in demand. Roll on shorthand!


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