Is Accurate Transcription Always Fair?

In today’s NYTimes, Eric Konigsberg documents the closing of The Roxy, a major gay dance club in Manhattan. It’s apparently an ancient cultural icon: the “warhorse” of a club has been operating since 1991. (What does that make ME, exactly? A fossil?) The most interesting aspect of the article to me was Konigsberg’s uber-accurate depiction of one patron’s language. He writes:

Oh, my God, I had my coming-out party here 11 years ago,” said Terrence Cairy, a reed-thin, 35-year-old jewelry designer from Melville, on Long Island. “I brought my friends and broke the news. Some friends I lost, some friends I kept.” But, he said, “This place stayed. Oh, my God, I used to come here every weekend. One friend, I brought him here three years ago to come out. It’s a safe place to come out, and oh, my God, it has the best D.J.’s in the city.

Oh, my God! He is totally, like, trashing this guy! Many litigators can point to similar examples from court reporters who chose to provide a blow-by-blow transcription of proceedings, including “uhh”, “umm”, and every other sound emitted by an attorney. And somehow court reporters seem to target such precise accounts at those lawyers they like least. (In the case of court transcription, I suspect that lawyers reap what they sow. Treat court reporters right, and you’ll rarely suffer from such brutal honesty.)

All of which is a reminder that completeness is not always fairness. It depends on the context. And in the context of today’s Times, I found the precision, like, totally rude.

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9 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Completeness and accuracy are simply not negotiable in a trascription of a proceeding. This must be one of the most peculiar posts I’ve ever read on this blog.

    Are you serious? Have you ever practiced law a day in your life?

    Who gets to decide what a “fair” transcript would be? You? The court reporter? Opposing counsel? Have you even thought about how this would work? Do you look over the stenographer’s shoulder and object to her inclusion of something you deem “unfair”?

  2. Dan Filler says:

    Anon, I take your point to be that completeness and accuracy as to substance are important. I agree with your view, though I must admit that while they may not be “negotiable”, they are also far from inevitable – primarily for reasons of human error, but sometimes for more pernicious reasons. As to the inclusion and deletion of non-substantive details (and yes indeed, we could debate which details are non-substantive), clearly this varies by transcriber. I would agree that a transcription of courtroom activity should include an “oh my God”, while it might be profitably edited out of a newspaper article. But it is more than routine for court transcriptions to edit out “uhhs” and the like. This is often out of kindness to the witness (as well as convenience – inclusion of those sounds takes extra time.) While those deletions might not change the course of an appeal (hopefully they won’t), some content is nonetheless lost. Still, I don’t think many people shed tears over those particular content losses.

  3. Anon says:

    Shouldn’t a court reporter strive to produce the most accurate recreation of testimony possible?

    When you are on trial facing loss of liberty or assets, will you permit your court reporter to be the “gatekeeper” who decides which words, stammers, or idiosyncracies of your accuser(s) should be included in the record? Might not the accurate recording of a witness who punctuates his testimony every ten seconds with “like,” “you know,” and “oh my God” be useful in weighing the witness’s maturity or credibility?

    Have you ever set foot in a deposition or a courtroom a day in your life?

  4. debris says:

    I can’t speak for Dan, of course (not least since I don’t even know him except as a reader). But, I took him to be referring to what counsel says, not to witness testimony.

    I’ve taken and defended plenty of depositions, and tried plenty of cases, and I can say from my own experience that (whether they ought to or not) reporters do indeed vary in regard to whether they transcribe the lawyers’ “umms” and other similarly non-communicative vocalizations. In my own case, this is variously a blessing and a curse, as my speech is heavily laden with annoying verbal tics (largely attributable, in my case, to Tourette’s — one of many reasons I’ve never done jury trials!). In most instances, the reporters have been merciful. But, in one case that stands out as a painful memory (even though I won), the transcript was so painfully embarrassing for me to read that I seriously thought about quitting my job (which I eventually did for other reasons). I’m pretty sure I hadn’t done anything to piss-off the reporter. Perhaps she was just super-fastidious.

    When it comes to witness testimony, I agree that the reporter ought to include even the most seemingly non-communicative utterances, for the reasons Anon notes.

  5. I agree with debris – in my experience the better reporters leave out the ums, uhs, and OK’s from the questions.

  6. Dan Filler says:

    A couple of points. First, there is the “ought”: a court reporter ought to be complete. But complete, in my own opinion, need not include umms and uhhs – what my clinical prof used to call “humming sounds.” This is particularly true, as Debris says, with respect to lawyer comments. It is probably more problematic to delete this from witness testimony, but not something I lose a lot of sleep over. Then there is the “is”: in fact, court reporters vary widely in the degree of completeness. Complain all you want, but a good lawyer needs to know this – and either attempt to regulate it on the front end (by choosing a good reporter or advising the reporter of a need for completeness) or understand that backend strategies will be limited by these potential deficiencies.

    Am I just an academic making stuff up? Depends on your point of view. But my opinions come out of a practice experience that included litigating around a thousand transcribed court hearings, including prelminary hearings, suppression motions, misdemeanor trials and something over a hundred felony trials. Not to mention all the instances where I read the Times and found reporters writing in a perfectly unsnarky (but perhaps less that totally accurate) fashion.

  7. kmg says:

    I don’t think the quote you selected supports your argument. Journalism is a descriptive enterprise, and multiple uses of the phrase “oh my god”, to my ear, describe a person to some extent overcome that an institution that has had a large role in a formative period of his life has ceased to exist. Read that quote with the “oh my Gods” taken out, and you have something far colder and less emotional. It doesn’t accurately describe the emotional reality of the story, and therefore does not succeed as journalism.

  8. Anon says:

    So, let’s get this straight, without the shame of the transcript, nothing exists to convince the attorney to abandon his awfully distracting ticks and to become a more polished public speaker. Faced with the accurate depiction of his presentation, a speaker’s view may shift from the wonderful one in his mind’s eye to the actual one that the jury and judge hear. This obviously alarms Mr. Filler, who strives for abject mediocrity in legal speaking. Good for you.

    There’s really nothing to see here. Move along, please.

  9. Amused says:

    Those who can’t, teach.