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Court reporters are best known as the men or women sitting in the courtroom silently typing to record what is being said. While that is true, it is only part of the court reporter's job. Much more work is done after the court reporter leaves the trial or hearing.
In the courtroom, court reporters use symbols or shorthand to record what is said as quickly as it is spoken on a stenotype machine, which is a device that looks like a miniature typewriter. The stenotype machine has 24 keys on its keyboard. Each key prints a single symbol. Multiple keys can be pressed at one time to print different combinations of symbols. Each symbol or combination of symbols represents a different sound, word, or phrase. As testimony is given, the reporter strikes one or more keys to create a phonetic representation of the testimony on a strip of paper, as well as on a computer disk inside the stenotype machine. The court reporter later uses a computer to translate and transcribe the testimony into legible, full-page documents. Since people in court may speak at a rate of between 250 and 300 words a minute, court reporters must record this testimony word for word and quickly.
Accurate recording of a trial is vital because the court reporter's record becomes the official transcript for the entire proceeding. In our legal system, court transcripts can be used after the trial for many important purposes. If a legal case is appealed, for example, the court reporter's transcript becomes the foundation for any further legal action. The appellate judge refers to the court reporter's transcript to see what happened in the trial and how the evidence was presented.
Because of the importance of accuracy, a court reporter who misses a word or phrase must interrupt the proceedings to have the words repeated. The court reporter may be asked by the judge to read aloud a portion of recorded testimony during the trial to refresh everyone's memory. Court reporters must pay close attention to all the proceedings and be able to hear and understand everything. Sometimes it may be difficult to understand a particular witness or attorney due to poor diction, a strong accent, or a soft speaking voice. Nevertheless, the court reporter cannot be shy about stopping the trial and asking for clarification.
Court reporters must be adept at recording testimony on a wide range of legal issues, from medical malpractice to income tax evasion. In some cases, court reporters may record testimony at a murder trial or a child-custody case. Witnessing tense situations and following complicated arguments are unavoidable parts of the job. The court reporter must be able to remain detached from the drama that unfolds in court while faithfully recording all that is said.
After the trial or hearing, the court reporter has more work to do. Using a CAT program, the stenotype notes are translated to English. The majority of these translated notes are accurate. This rough translation is then edited either by the court reporter or by a scopist—an assistant to the court reporter who edits and cleans up the notes. If a stenotype note did not match a word in the court reporter's CAT dictionary during translation, it shows up still in stenotype form. The court reporter must manually change these entries into words and update the dictionary used in translating. If any meanings of words or spellings of names are unfamiliar to the court reporter, research must be done to verify that the correct term or spelling is used. The court reporter then proofreads the transcript to check for any errors in meaning, such as the word here instead of the word hear. If necessary or if requested by a lawyer or judge, special indexes and concordances are compiled using computer programs. The last step the court reporter must take is printing and binding the transcript to make it an organized and usable document for the lawyers and judge.
In some states, the court reporter is responsible for swearing in the witnesses and documenting items of evidence.
In addition to the traditional method of court reporting discussed above, a number of other methods of reporting have emerged in recent years. In real-time court reporting, the court reporter types the court proceedings on a stenotype machine, which is connected to a computer. The symbols that the court reporter types on the stenotype machine are converted to words that can be read by those involved in the case. This process is known as Communications Access Real-time Translation (CART). In addition to its use in court, CART is used in meetings, educational settings, and for television closed captioning for the hearing impaired.
In electronic reporting, the court reporter uses audio equipment to record court proceedings. The court reporter is responsible for overseeing the recording process, taking notes to identify speakers and clarify other issues, and ensuring the quality of the recording. Court reporters who specialize in this method are often asked to create a written transcript of the recorded proceeding.
In voice writing, a court reporter wears a hand-held mask (known as a voice silencer) that is equipped with a microphone, and repeats the testimony of all parties involved in the trial. Some reporters translate the voice recording in real time using computer speech recognition technology. Others wait till after the proceedings to create the translation using voice recognition technology or by doing the translation manually.
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