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May 9, 2008

Shortchanged without shorthand?

By Dave Lee STD

It may look like dribbly scribble on scrappy bits of notepad, but shorthand has long been a skill that journalists have come to rely on to report accurately.

Over on our sister blog, The Wire, they’re discussing whether journalists need shorthand anymore. This is in response to a post from Charlie Beckett from Polis suggesting that it’s a handy skill rather than an essential tool.

Comments have been coming in on both posts, and while I’d love to agree with the ‘ditch it’ camp (I can’t do shorthand), I have to concede that I think it is definitely vital to a journalist.

I can cite a very memorable example of when it would have been useful. So far, we’ve heard the strong argument of court reporting needing shorthand. Yes, it does, and to send a non-shorthand-trained journalist to court is a legal battle waiting to happen.

But my experiences of feeling at a loss without shorthand come in less-likely situations.

On one of my first ever stories, I was sent to interview a lovely old lady who would turn 100. A nice, simple local press story; one that I should have been able to tie up and spit out 500 words with no hassle.

I took my dictaphone and notepad to do the interview. The idea would be to chat to this lady as naturally as possible, making it seem like a casual discussion and not an interview. Of course, all interviews should be like this, but in this case it was especially important. If she saw me scribbling away furiously as she spoke I’m certain she would have gone shy on me.

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By popping my dictaphone on the table I could not worry about notes.

“What’s that?” she asked. Gulp. I didn’t for a moment think that this bit of technology would make her so uneasy. But it did. She wasn’t happy doing the interview with the dictaphone, for reasons I do not know. Generational, perhaps, which meant I had to rely on notes. If I could pull out shorthand in this situation I would have been fine, noting down each phrase she came up with.

It was a great interview. She told me of how she drove an ambulance in London during the Second World War, dodging the onslaught of the Blitz as she went about her business. But, sadly, I don’t feel I caught the drama as well as I would have done with verbatim quotes. A big shame.

Another, more recent example, came from a task that involved transcribing a speech by Nicolas Sarkozy. There was no time to set up my dictaphone, or to get at a computer to get typing. Nope, good old pen and paper was all I had.

No matter how advanced the technology gets, it’ll still, every so often, come down to that. Learn shorthand.

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