6 Reasons Digital Court Reporting Can’t Replace a Human Stenographer

Nearly every industry has seen drastic improvement from embracing digital technology. For instance, purely digital internet provides speeds that are impossible to achieve with a dialup modem.

While digital technology has significantly improved our lives, it’s not always the superior option. Arguments about sound quality aside, the potential for digital technology to outright fail is often overlooked. When digital technology is used in the courtroom, equipment failure could alter the outcome of a case.

For court reporters, the potential for digital tools to fail and fall short is the reason digital court reporters can’t replace human stenographers.

  1. Accurate court reporting requires a human being

Think about the number of times you’ve watched a movie or a video on YouTube and couldn’t understand what someone was saying. That’s the biggest problem with digital court reporting. When no human being documents the dialogue using a stenotype machine, those unintelligible words are lost forever. While it’s true that digital court reporters take notes, it’s not the same by a long shot.

Sandra Cooper Kaderly from the Cooper Group has been a court reporter since 1987 and sees no reason to fear being replaced by digital tools. She points out that digital court reporters aren’t trained to use shorthand and instead, they simply take notes during the proceedings that serve as a general outline of the digital recording.

  1. A stenographer’s tools are more reliable

Digital tools are unreliable. You never know when digital equipment is going to fail for no apparent reason. The only way to implement a backup plan is to have two digital recordings happening simultaneously. What happens when both cameras are plugged into the same power outlet and fail due to a power surge? What if one camera fails due to a hardware issue while the other maxes out the memory card?

  1. Digital court reporting equipment picks up all distractions

The human mind can push distractions into the background. For example, in a courtroom, it’s common to hear traffic, horns, and commotion from an open window. A human stenographer can ignore those sounds and focus on the current speaker. A digital recording device can’t do that.

  1. A stenographer’s tools are more accurate

Once a stenotype machine is used to document court proceedings, the stenographer will translate their shorthand into a full transcript. As long as they recorded accurate shorthand, the final transcript will be just as accurate.

Whether a court reporter uses a stenotype machine or a steno mask, they’ll have an easier time identifying what’s being said when multiple people are talking over each other. A human, as opposed to a digital device, can hone in on dialogue with more accuracy. Technology hasn’t reached a point where microphones can automatically adjust the levels from multiple sources of input.

  1. Appeals and justice depend on an accurate transcript

When defense attorney Kevin Reddington decided to challenge a prior conviction against a man named Grant Headley, he discovered the court’s digital recording system wasn’t turned on for the proceeding. There was no transcript available to review to support the appeal.

In another instance, the court’s recording system shut off during a 2016 homicide trial and a half hour of testimony was lost. Furthermore, the transcript that was available had gaps identified as “low audio,” “unclear speech,” “background noise,” and “simultaneous speech.” These problems wouldn’t exist with a human stenographer.

  1. Transcriptions of digital recordings are flawed

Most digital recordings are transcribed by people who are contracted for the task and were not present during the proceedings.

WCVB5 describes an experiment they performed that revealed the inaccuracy of having digital recordings transcribed by people who weren’t in the courtroom. They had two people transcribe the same recording from a murder case and several serious discrepancies were found. For instance, the remote transcriber who was not present during the trial mistakenly transcribed the name “Ethan” when the name spoken by the witness was “Kayla.”

Digital court reporting is only reliable for body language

Digital court reporting isn’t a reliable way to produce an accurate transcript, but it does help investigators observe body language. Since court reporters don’t document body language as it’s observed, it’s up to the attorneys to verbally describe witness body language to make it part of the record. A video recording can be useful for reviewing that body language.

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