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Captioning corner: Lessons learned from a captioning fail

In this age of social media, it doesn’t take long for a captioning blooper to be tweeted, Facebooked, or turned into a viral video, much to the chagrin of the individual reporter and broadcast captioner community at large. We’ve all been there, done that, wished we could crawl into the ground and disappear.

However, if we do not think about our bloopers as learning experiences, we are all at risk of them happening again. We, as a community, should take the necessary steps to avoid making mistakes and, when they do happen, know what to do to mitigate the errors as much as possible.

As a new captioner, I misstroked a brief during a basketball game and a celebrity name popped up instead of a player. I was mortified. But because of that experience, I can count on one hand how many times it happened again. I worked really hard to keep my briefs organized and took great care and put much thought into creating safe briefs and figuring out ways to write names out whenever possible, saving briefs for times when I really needed them.

Yes, captioning is a hard job sometimes. The speakers can go fast, and you can’t slow them down as you would if you were working with them in person. Yes, too many people don’t understand that captions are created by real people, not computers, much less the process that every single word must go through to get from the speaker’s mouth through our ears, brain, and fingers, and then to our computers, the modem, and back onto the television broadcast stream.

But before we educate the public, we need to first put our money where our mouths are. I’m not just speaking to individual captioners. I also direct this to every captioning company: How many of us have the CBC? How many of us have the RMR? And what about the RPR?

To cite one example that is outside of our industry, let’s look at news reporting. During the Boston marathon bombings in April, news reporters were trying to get information out fast (just like we do). But when one of CNN’s reporters covering the marathon incident said someone had been arrested and identified the suspect as a dark-skinned male, he made a mistake. And guess what? His mistake became news. Why? Because we expect CNN to get it right, and they have a responsibility to get it right. I’m sure he and everyone else behind the mistake were mortified. I’m sure his colleagues all said, “Been there, done that.” But I’d bet you any amount of money the higher-ups at CNN didn’t care about the circumstances surrounding that mistake. I’m sure they didn’t coddle the reporter and tell him not to worry about it.

So please, I beg of you, don’t miss this wake-up call. Comb through your dictionaries for old briefs, and create job-specific dictionaries if you haven’t already. Analyze how you brief, and seek help if you need a better system. Captioning companies, even the little guys, should demand certifications, and they should test captioners, not only before hiring them, but periodically throughout their employment to ensure high quality.

If you’re at a loss as to where to start, here are three places I suggest you begin: Your prefixes, suffixes, and word roots; your briefs and phrases; and your dictionary as a whole.

Use prefixes, suffixes, and word roots

The goal of every captioner should be to strive for clean, accurate captions and to be secure in the knowledge that your dictionary and writing style will back you up. To achieve 99 percent accuracy or better, a good place to start is to examine your steno theory and modify it so that each and every stroke is uniquely defined. In other words, avoid using a single stroke in multiple circumstances. For example, if the stroke PWAOEU is defined as BUY, then avoid using that stroke as a prefix or suffix. Create a unique stroke to use in those situations. Likewise, the stroke OR should never be used as anything but the word OR. Adopting this philosophy will greatly reduce the risk for word-boundary issues. Note: You may use a stroke as a prefix as long as the next stroke is a clear suffix but do not define the first stroke as a prefix.

Prefixes and suffixes play an enormous role in captioning. One of the first steps of transitioning from court reporter to realtime writer and/or captioner is distinguishing between prefixes and suffixes. Although you may encounter a few word boundary problems while court reporting, they seem to be ever-present in captioning unless the necessary changes are made to your writing. One of the first word-boundary problems I encountered while on the air, unfortunately, was POP ICONS, which translated as POPEYE CONS. I used AOEU for both prefixes and suffixes and thought if I globaled the stroke with another stroke, all would be fine. Obviously, that is one of the great misconceptions of realtime writing. You can’t simply global your way out of any situation. Captioning (and realtime in general) is really about writing your way out of any situation, using prefixes, root words, suffixes, and special characters like the delete space and space functions as well as fingerspelling.

Limit briefs and phrases

Achieving the necessary accuracy rate can also mean limiting the use of briefs and phrases. For example, instead of SERT for CERTIFICATE, either write it out or insert an asterisk into the original stroke or modify the stroke to something safer, like SOEURT. The asterisk, while foreign to many court reporters, can be a valuable tool in realtime. If you find it awkward to stroke the asterisk within another stroke, use the “half tap” method. To use the same example, stroke SERT and, while holding down the keys, simply reach over with your index finger to the asterisk key and press it down. After some practice, it will come more naturally, but for some strokes, the index finger just isn’t available and the half tap comes in handy. The primary reason to write out briefs and phrases is to avoid them appearing in a multi-stroke word if that word is either not in your dictionary or one of the strokes is misstroked. TETRACYCLINE could translate as AT THE TIME RA PSYCH LEAN. A much cleaner mistake would be TETRA PSYCHLINE (because I used my RA suffix and LINE suffix).

There is much controversy swirling around in the field about briefs. Some believe briefing as much as possible will increase your speed. While I will not dispute that general premise on its face, I would argue that briefing as much as possible will not increase your accuracy as a captioner. If you strive to write at an accuracy of 99 percent or better every day on any type of programming, it is my opinion (and the opinion of those who trained me) that a solid realtime theory devised of prefixes, suffixes, and root words is the best approach to consistent, accurate captions. I strongly believe you must first be capable of writing anything and everything without relying on briefs, artificial intelligence, or any other shortcut that may be invented in the next century. Once that happens, then briefs and some basic intelligence can be used as a tool, not as a crutch. The question is — and this has happened to me — what happens if you load the wrong job dictionary for a show? You write the brief that contains the show’s title in quotes. It does not translate. Before you can load the dictionary at the first commercial break, you must get through the first segment; i.e., writing out the title surrounded by quotation marks as well as any other show-related briefs. If you never mastered doing that, simply creating a brief every time at the first sign of difficulty, then you will surely run into trouble.

Here’s another example of something that has actually happened to me. I was captioning a dog competition, and a dog jumped off the dock at 21 feet 9 inches, which should appear as 21’ 9”. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to me, my CAT software’s intelligence was only designed for single digits in the “feet” portion of the figure. So what translated was 2’ 19”. I quickly had to improvise and chose to write 21 feet 9 inches the next several times. If I had been really slick, I would have written 21, my stroke for single apostrophe, 9, end quote. Now, that’s the work of a truly talented captioner. If it happens again, I’ll be ready for it.

Know your dictionary

Changing your writing is only half the battle. It is imperative that you remember how you changed your writing. Make use of sticky notes or cheat sheets anywhere and everywhere until you have memorized the new theory. Review transcripts and steno notes often for errors, and keep lists of problem areas. Purge your dictionary of word-global entries. For example, if you have the word-global entry MARTIAL ARTS with the steno PHAR/SHA*UL, which you have defined alone as MARSHALL, create a new and unique way to write MARTIAL, like PHAR/SH*EUL, and delete the word-global (crutch) entry. Practice writing sentences with the different versions of MARSHALL in them, including MARSHAL (which I write PHAR/SHA*L). Before you know it, you will “hear” MARTIAL instead of MARSHALL. It helps to visualize it. One of the ways I remember MARSHAL is having seen it on the back of Tommy Lee Jones’ character in The Fugitive. Jones played a “U.S. MARSHAL.” Whenever I hear FIRE MARSHAL, U.S. MARSHAL, and so forth, I see that actor running to some big emergency.