Court Reporter vs. Tape Recorder

Court Reporter vs. Tape Recorder

A court reporter can offer significant advantages to tape recording hearings.

Thirty-three years. That’s how long I have been a California shorthand reporter. During that time, I have reported thousands of depositions, hearings, arbitrations, city council meetings, stockholder meetings, business meetings, and worked in the Los Angeles Superior Court reporting numerous felony trials . You name it, I’ve probably done it.

Ten years ago, I reluctantly agreed to transcribe taped proceedings, but quickly decided I disliked it, primarily because of the poor quality of the tape. When I was recently offered  a job assignment to transcribe a taped hearing for a state agency, I decided to give it a try. After all, in the past 10 years, the quality of tape recordings must have greatly improved.  The added incentive for me was that I didn’t have to drive anywhere, fight traffic, and could be in the comfort of my home. The job was to be a quick turnaround so it needed to be done in a hurry.

After 654 pages of dense taped testimony, it was reinforced why it’s absolutely imperative to have Orange County court reporters at the proceedings to ensure an accurate record. The operative word here is “accurate.”   Timewise, it took me almost twice as long to produce a quasi-accurate record. I had to keep replaying parts I couldn’t hear, could partially hear or understand, and try to identify and distinguish certain voices that sounded similar. Yet, despite this time and effort, the end result had deficiencies and gaps.

It is essential the official guardian of the record be on scene in the room. My biggest realization is that the presence of a trained court reporter who is responsible for the record is what unconsciously dictates the behavior of the participants.

With taped proceedings, the participants easily forget a record is being made. Frequently, the arbitrator, attorneys and witnesses talk on top of each other, making it impossible to detect what was being said and who was speaking. The problem is not cured even after slowing the recording down and listening to it over and over again. In this instance, not only did they forget a record was being made by the tape recorder, the colloquy between the attorneys and arbitrator was often more in a conversational mode rather than the formal dialogue usually engaged in when an official record is being produced. The conversations were prolonged, adding unnecessary pages to an already long hearing.

Second, occasionally one of the parties remembered it was being taped and put her voice right up to the tape recorder, rendering a garbled, unintelligible sound.  It was impossible to understand what she was saying.

Third, an attorney and the arbitrator had similar sounding voices so there were times where I could do no more than make a guess who was speaking.

Fourth, if an attorney or witness was looking at documents, when pages were turned close to the microphone, the sound that was the loudest was the page turning, cancelling out or muffling the person’s voice.

The quality of the tape proved to be ridiculously poor. Apparently it was a hot day and there was a fan in the room creating a lot of ambient noise. This drowned out voices when the person walked away from the microphone. And if the person was soft-spoken, it was unfathomable to discern what was being said despite turning the playback up to full volume.

The final straw that almost broke my back was, for some mysterious reason  throughout three days of listening to these tapes, loud static would randomly interfere with the transmission and obliterate what anybody said. There were full sentences unable to be transcribed because of this phenomenon. The result was numerous inaudible blurbs scattered throughout the transcripts, making a verbatim transcript impossible to produce.  I hope it wasn’t important testimony that was wiped out .

These sentiments were shared among the team of reporters assigned to this project.   This started as a project with “a few tapes” to transcribe. It consisted of various interviews and an arbitration hearing. It was initially assigned to one reporter. After listening to the first few recordings, the reporter recognized that this project was a lot larger than anticipated and could not be transcribed in the time given. A team of nine reporters was assembled to transcribe what turned out to be 3,209 pages of transcript. They spent a total of 316 hours, averaging ten pages an hour. There were some tapes of such poor quality that the reporters were only able to transcribe at a rate of five to six pages an hour. One day, the recording was completely blank.

If these proceedings had been reported by a live reporter, it could have been handled by two reporters. The time it takes to prepare a transcript varies from 20 to 50 pages an hour, depending on the density of material. The preparation time for the 3,209 pages would have been from 64 hours to 160 hours. Transcribing from a tape recording took two to five times longer than using a live reporter.

Of the 3,209 pages, there were 320 inaudible sections. Even with an arbitrator moderating the recorded hearing, there were 175 inaudible sections. These inaudible sections consisted of overlapping speakers, slurred/mumbled speech, witnesses quietly thinking out loud, and  poor recording due to speakers being too far away from the microphones.  Even with the reporters listening to portions over and over again, it was just impossible to decipher what was being said.

Having California court reporting companies present is the most efficient and accurate way to ensure the best possible recording of proceedings for the following reasons:

  • A live reporter can ask for spellings not only of participants’ names but of words unique to the case
  • A live reporter can police the proceedings when the arbitrator fails to by requesting people not talk over each other
  • A live reporter can slow a fast talker down in order to reflect precisely what’s being said
  • A live reporter can actually see who is talking and identify the speaker correctly
  • A live reporter can ask for clarification if a word is mispronounced, slurred, or mumbled
  • A live reporter uses state-of-the-art software that offers multiple backups so there would never be a “blank recording”

Most importantly, a live court reporter, not an inanimate object, can ensure the record is verbatim and accurately reflected which should be the goal for both the reporter and the client.

Evelyn Mah
Abrams, Mah & Kahn
4101 Birch St., Suite 130
Newport Beach, CA 92660
P: 800.622.0226, F: 949.261.6688