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Yesterday a news story broke about a stenographer on the US Senate floor fainting which prompted a brief recess while she was being medically attended to.

Hearing this, I started to wonder why stenographers are still being employed for this position, working from the chamber floor, when we live in a day and age where technology could do a better job than having someone listening and hand-keying in what they are hearing. Furthermore, there are already numerous recording devices in place throughout the chamber floor of the Senate, House of Representatives and probably most other state and international governmental chambers.

Specifically in the case of the US Senate, there are more than a few microphones and it also has multiple video feeds recording what's taking place. Modern technology can easily convert spoken audio to text, and even though the process isn't perfect it would probably be more accurate if it was automatically converted to text and then reviewed by a stenographer who reviews the recordings of each session against the computer-generated transcription.

I understand the importance of keeping thorough records and minutes of governmental meetings but in a place like Capital Hill, it seems to me that a better, more accurate approach to keeping such a records would to implement effective technology.

Is there a good reason why stenographers are still employed to hand-generate meeting transcripts?

UPDATE

I threw this question out with the very basic assumption that human-generated transcripts are not necessary when technology is already recording all of this material and auto-dictation software could certainly transcribe what's being said with moderate accuracy.

After reading the comments below, I further recalled that stenographers actually DO NOT the record words they hear, in the typical sense. Instead, a stenographer is trained to phonetically type what they hear so that they can type at speeds of over 200 words per minute!

I think this makes my question all the more relevant. It is true that speech recognition software is still imperfect but if the system is designed to dissect sounds, rather than words, the computer could quite possibly do a much better job at transcription that a human! This is because simple sounds, even coming at fast speeds would be easier to recognize than entire words.

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    Can you clarify "reviewed by a stenographer who reviews the transcripts of each session against the computer-generated transcription."? What non-computer transcript are you referring to? – Bobson Mar 14 '17 at 15:01
  • One reason is that many juristictions forbid the video or audio recording of court sessions... hope that makes you feel more secure that your governement is not hiding anything from you. – SoylentGray Mar 14 '17 at 19:20
  • @Bobson What I mean is that software could generate the transcript and then someone could quickly review the output. Furthermore, if questions ever arose about what was said, one could always go back and listen directly to the audio or even watch video footage (which would be useful if a politicians was actively talking about a chart in front of them.) It just seems to me that even if other techniques were employed, someone sitting there hand-keying in all of that dialog simply isn't the best approach to keeping thorough records. – RLH Mar 14 '17 at 19:25
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    Stenographers do not operate purely phonetically. Their recording mechanism may be based in phonetics, but they process people's speech as language, so they know the meaning of the words they're transcribing phonetically. And the end product of a stenographer's work is indeed a transcript that almost invariably uses the correct spelling for words that have homophones, such as they're, their, and there. Also, software does not remove human error; it just shifts it to the programmer. – phoog Mar 14 '17 at 19:57
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    Here is an answer from an actual stenographer (not a legal stenographer, but a stenographer for deaf or hard of hearing people). stenoknight.com/FAQ.html#cartspeech (as a side-note, this is the same woman who developed her own open source stenographic keyboard, for which there is an entire community behind. I am a big fan of her work.) – Stephan Branczyk Mar 15 '17 at 6:40
45

I wasn't able to find an answer online, so I called the Office of the Clerk of the House to ask why they use stenographers instead of electronic recording devices. They gave me a list of reasons:

  1. To preserve the decorum of the House.
  2. House members like having a stenographer they can talk to about the record (to have something re-read, or to have their assistance locating materials in the record).
  3. The use of electronic devices is limited in Congress. This is due both to security concerns and infrastructure.
  4. With stenographers they have instant access to the record. With recording devices this may not be the case.

Some of these reasons seem better than others, but there they are "from the horse's mouth".

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    +1 for using an analog technology to ask questions about why an analog technology is still used! – Bobson Mar 14 '17 at 23:40
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    @Bobson - Thanks! To be honest, it was the only way to get an answer that wasn't just guesswork (that I could find). – indigochild Mar 15 '17 at 0:06
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    This is the answer. I, too, echo the Bobson's sentiments-- +1 for actually calling an Office of the Clerk and asking. – RLH Mar 15 '17 at 12:15
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The answer is simple.

  1. Because the machine cannot guess who is talking. The stenographer sees who talks and writes down the name. (this should be enough)
  2. Because, lots of times, the speakers speak without a mike (especially during a disagreement) and the machine doesn't record anything. The stenographer is there and listens and writes down.
  3. Because the stenographer has to give the overall picture of what is going on in the parliament (voices, objection, applause, etc.). The machine cannot do that.
  4. Because the minutes have some standard format in some cases. For example for the voting, you don't write what is being said, but you use a specific form to make clear what every party votes.
  5. Because the speaker doesn't always speak perfectly and sometimes makes serious mistakes. Someone has to check the grammar mistakes or other mistakes in order to protect the speaker etc

But I agree that there is no reason for stenographers to keep the minutes by shorthand since there are recorders. Shorthand should be used only for interventions without a microphone.

  • Its a late but really good answer! Welcome to the site. – Failed Scientist Sep 25 '17 at 6:52
  • Do you have any evidence that this is actually the reason stenographers are used? Or is this speculation? – indigochild Sep 25 '17 at 17:31
  • Thank you, Talha Irfan for your welcome. I happened to see the post yesterday by chance. – Nota Karampeti Sep 26 '17 at 11:00
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    indigochild I work as a stenographer in the Greek Parliament and I know it by experience. – Nota Karampeti Sep 26 '17 at 11:01
7

If I understand correctly, you are asking why isn't voice recognition software used instead of manually writing what one hears.

Although voice recognition is very advanced nowadays (and available for various types of devices) there are still some technical problems related to correctly identifying all the words.

This article tells us about some of these issues:

  • Difficulty identifying the correct word in the context of the sentence in which it's being used when there is another word that sounds similar (e.g., whether the user means "wear" versus "where")
  • Environmental variables such as background noise levels, machinery and other noises present in the workplace
  • Speaker variables including stress, emotion, speech quality and health
  • Differences such as accents and dialects

Of course, some of these problems can be tackled by using artificial intelligence / machine learning techniques (e.g. properly identification of word based on context), but some doubt still exists.

Another approach is to configure a very low tolerance (do not make assumption when the word is not very clear) and allow the computer to interrupt the speech and ask to repeat a phrase. Although this might provide very high confidence in speech recognition, it can be confusing for some persons.

This article also mentions some difficulty in properly recognizing fast speech, when words tend to be united (continuous speech as opposed to discrete speech):

Continuous speech recognition operates on speech in which words are connected together, i.e., not separated by pauses. It recognizes speech by analyzing words and the relationships between words (context). This is in contrast to discrete speech recognition where each word must be identified as an entity, i.e., as an individually identifiable unit without consideration for relationships between words. Because the latter requires that the speaker pause between each word, the words-per-minute output (approximately 150 per minute) is too low for use in many environments.

There can also be a juridical problem if the transcript is wrong in a way that clearly distorts the message. You cannot put the blame on the machine.

A possible approach is to have voice recognition operate with very few interruptions and have a human being review the text afterwards. Although a human being is able to review the text, there is a lack of feedback (cannot ask for clarification in a real-time fashion).

Conclusion: Possible reasons for not using voice recognition in official meetings are: technical limitations and/or juridical issues.

  • Coincidentally, this Toronto bar, globalnews.ca/news/3308523/…, gets calls when Apple's Siri confuses eSport and escort... – DJohnM Mar 15 '17 at 19:21
  • @DJohnM - That's a good one :) – Alexei Mar 15 '17 at 19:25
4

I know this is a somewhat old post, and I read this question a while ago, regarding why stenos are still used in governmental chambers (as well as in courtrooms, depositions, closed-captioning and in college classrooms - live or remotely - for the hearing impaired) and I came upon it again today and just had to respond.

It is easy to assume, when one does not "report" or "work with" the spoken word, that speech recognition/audio recording are a better alternative to live reporters (stenographers). However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Writing (that's what we call it, not "typing") the spoken word, live, is an exercise in immense cognitive abilities as well as physical skill. It is not just "getting words on paper," so to speak. Capturing live speech may appear to be an easy, rote task, but it is anything but.

A steno has undergone years of training to get to the point of producing realtime text (and years of work experience to obtain employment at this high of a governmental level). This training consists of years of practicing (like a musical instrument) to be able to keep up with the speed of speech. Most highly qualified stenos can "write" at a rate of over 300 wpm or spm (strokes per minute) with close to 99 percent accuracy.

Stenos learn to write phonetically on a 22-blank-key (some have a couple more keys if desired) Stenograph machine, or keyboard, and there are various "writing theories" available. They also use briefs and quick keystrokes for common words and phrasing, and their personalized dictionary translates the steno code into English immediately. They build "job dictionaries" (in addition to their main dictionary) related to the subject they are working on, which means cleaner subsequent translation, especially when dealing with obtuse, difficult subject matters.

They ARE NOT keying in individual letters, unless that "letter" needs to translate as an actual alphabetical letter or that individual key translates to an actual word (depending on how the software is programmed by the steno). They can write whole segments of speech in one keystroke. While there are a handful of theories that a steno can embark upon, once all is said and done, EACH AND EVERY stenographer has their own style of writing, their own "code" that they create and build on, after graduating from school. Even two reporters who learned the same basic theory will have a completely different writing style. It is an art form.

And, by the way, only around 3 percent of each starting class becomes a full-fledged stenographer. There is a dramatic drop-out rate because the skill is extremely hard to learn: the equivalent of learning a new language as well as a musical instrument at the same time.....and learning it FAST and ACCURATELY.

Stenos are able to discern who is speaking (place speaker's name in the record) as well as ignore extraneous noises, deal with accents, unclear speech, punctuate as they write, etc, etc. It is no small feat. Also, a steno must have an enormous grasp on the English language (vocabulary and knowledge in virtually all fields/subject matters) to be able to capture the record.

There is also the very important issue of punctuation. It may seem simple, but, when writing live, it can become complex. Speakers change thoughts mid-sentence, cut each other off mid-sentence, talk over each other, use incorrect grammar (even highly educated folks), and of course ramble and make up words, to name just a few issues. The steno is "on it" and able to punctuate appropriately to make sure that what appears in the final text is actually what was being conveyed by the speaker. As we all know, incorrect punctuation can have disastrous results.

Stenos will also immediately clarify any unclear speech, on the spot. This cannot be done by a machine or a recording. As far as having proceedings recorded and then typed up? Now that IS archaic. Stenos produce the transcript/text second by second, with usually a small amount of time spent, after the proceedings are completed, looking over the text, checking for small errors, fixing errant punctuation, or maybe possibly a word that did not translate (appeared as steno code) before sending off the final version, if needed.

Stenos are able to imbue the record with their life experience in addition to learned subject matters. This is crucial and often overlooked. The steno is comprehending, following along, while writing, using their knowledge base and skills to create the record. There MUST be an educated "brain" involved in the process, at the time of the proceedings, not after the fact.

The software that stenos use also automatically records the audio as they write it. It is synced to the word. So, if someone wants to hear something played back, there is no need to rewind/forward/etc as the steno can click on the exact spot and play the audio if need be.

I wanted to give an idea of the background and training of a stenographer so that my making the following statement will make more sense: As of the present time, stenographers are the ONLY form of reliable, fast, accurate speech-to-text translation. AI is nowhere near capable of processing intense proceedings (or even non-intense proceedings) and it will probably never be, at least not in our lifetime. It works great for simple commands or one-speaker email preparation (kind of), but that is a VASTLY different environment from the one stenos work in, which commonly consists of multiple speakers, heated arguments, high emotion, dense subject matters of the utmost importance.

Having someone type from an audio recording usually leads to numerous errors due to bad audio, lack of education on behalf of the transcriber, equipment failure AND it takes up to four times as long, and that's with a "good quality" recording. Why type when a steno can have the written word on screen within one second?

The idea of having someone go through a transcript prepared by AI, to correct the NUMEROUS errors, is, again, bordering on archaic (compared to what stenos offer) and extremely time-consuming and leads to errors (no one to ask for clarification after the fact - possibly low knowledge base, being unable to even know what word is missing, the meaning of sentences, etc). Every steno knows that if you did not hear/understand something live, it is highly unlikely that your audiosync (digital recording in SW) is going to portray the words/terms any clearer. So, please explain how this scenario would be any different for someone "checking" an AI "attempt" of parsing speech? Again, it takes MUCH longer since you basically have to listen to the whole proceeding AGAIN in order to make the tedious/overwhelming corrections. Why do that when a steno is spot-on?

Stenos play a "verbal piano" and have spent years obtaining the skill and knowledge necessary to be successful in the field. Stenos are constantly updating their knowledge base, dictionaries (the files that translate the code), and software/hardware. Stenos use extremely sophisticated technology.

And, finally, stenos ARE NOT creating "minutes." They are creating a verbatim account of all that was said. Huge difference.

Many courts have made the mistake of believing that having proceedings audio-recorded, and later typed up if necessary, would be great and save tons of money. Most of those courts have brought back the live stenos, once they realized the error of their ways as far as incomplete transcripts, transcripts littered with "inaudible," and major delays in receiving said transcripts.

Stenographers play a vital role in the administration of justice, recording events for posterity, and being the "ears" for the deaf and hearing impaired. It is a very misunderstood field which contributes to statements/questions being asked such as the one I'm responding to. And I have only briefly outlined the training and benefits of a stenographer.

I hope this sheds more light on why stenos are the GOLD STANDARD in capturing live speech.

I would also highly recommend reading this:

https://clereporting.com/court-reporters-v-digital-recording-and-voice-recognition-a-comprehensive-breakdown/

He offers a very detailed analysis of the benefits of stenos over AI and digital recording, as well as a little more information on how the steno machine is used (thousands of possible keystroke combinations) and really clarifies these points much better than I did.

  • Thank you for your reply and that’s some invaluable information. Curious, what is your personal background, and why are you so familiar with these details? Are you a stenographer or work with one? I appreciate the fascinating level of detail in your response. – RLH May 27 at 17:31

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