Here in New Zealand all journalism schools require students to be proficient in T-line Shorthand at around 60-80 wpm before they can graduate.
The shorthand requirement is mandated by the NZ Journalists Training Organisation (JTO) as a Unit Standard for the qualification the National Diploma in Journalism. The diploma is a level 5 qualification, the equivalent to the first year of a university degree.
The question for me is this: Is shorthand still the most effective method of capturing quotes and notes? Then there’s the follow up: Who’s going to pay for it being taught in our universities and polytechs?
The journalism training in the Polytechnic system follows this syllabus quite closely while the university-based courses are at level 7 (3rd year undergraduate) or levels 8/9 Postgraduate Diploma and Masters level.
The JTO is an industry-funded body and industry members of the various J-schools’ advisory committees are also strongly committed to the teaching and learning of shorthand.
While it’s a requirement of the level 5 diploma (worth 15 credit points) there is some debate about the suitability of making shorthand a full 15 point paper within the normal academic framework of a bachelor’s degree or postgraduate qualification.
Personally I’m not convinced that shorthand is still a necessary skill for 21st century journalists. I am forming the view that it is an antiquated technology that can easily be replaced with a variety of cheap, easy-to-use and unobtrusive digital recording devices that allow for accurate transcription of quotes and notes.
Here are a number of counter arguments that I’ve heard and I’m keen to see some real debate about this amongst journalism educators.
Arguments in favour of shorthand
- shorthand notes are a legal document that can be used as evidence in a court case
- shorthand is a vital skill for court reporters because in most jurisdictions cameras and recorders are not allowed in court during proceedings; further transcripts are hard to get from court officials and they take time to be released to the media
- in New Zealand reporters are paid a bonus if they keep their shorthand up above a minimum speed requirement
I think things are changing. Increasingly cameras are being seen in courts, though I understand that this is an uneven process. I also don’t think that reporters are called upon to give evidence from their shorthand notes in many court cases; so this is a “just in case” type of argument in effect. Finally, the bonus is a matter of a handful of dollars a week.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that by insisting that accredited journalism schools teach shorthand (often at great expense), the industry is merely pushing the cost onto the students and the tertiary education system. maybe the employers should be paying for it; either by subsidising the j schools to teach it, or doing it in-house once they get their hands on our graduates.
I’m currently looking into this issue in other countries and I’d be very keen to hear from journalism educators and working reporters about the use-value of shorthand. I know that anecdotally some of our graduates are alleged to say things like “shorthand is the most useful thing I learned at journalism school.”
If this is really the case that what are we doing? Surely the value of a good education in journalism is more than 80 wpm of T-line.
The global situation?
A quick google search turned up some interesting material about the teaching of shorthand, including this interesting prediction that it would disappear from the journalism curriculum in 5-10 years…this was in 1998:
Bernie Corbett, national organizer for Britain’s National Union of Journalists, explained that most journalism jobs there require an academic “qualification.” And, he said, most print journalism degree programs require shorthand skills of 100 words per minute.
“Currently, trainers and editors still maintain that it is an indispensable core skill,” Corbett said, “but modern attitudes are against them and I predict the requirement will be dropped some time in the next five to ten years.”
Then again, is shorthand likely to become the next battle ground between the industry and the academy? Certainly that appears to be the case in the UK where the industry training body the NCTJ has been making the argument that journalism courses are too “academic” and not “practical” enough. According to Andy Bull, a senior NCTJ official, shorthand is still an essential:
“For editors and for the NCTJ, shorthand is essential. Universities have a problem with shorthand because they see it purely as a mechanical skill. Never mind that it is hard to manage as a foreign language.”
I found this quote in a blog by Steve Hill, a lecturer in electronic publishing at Southampton Solent University, where he discusses Bull’s piece from the British Journalism Review. Unfortunately the full copy of Andy’s piece is not available online.
I also found an Australian reference to the JSchool run by Professor John Henningham in Brisbane (Queensland). Students in his privately-run programme do get some shorthand training.
I’m keen to hear from journalism educators and reporters on this issue.
To kick off some discussion, here’s the txt of an email my colleague Stephen Quinn sent from Deakin University in Victoria (Australia):
The relevance depends on what you are educating J students for. If for
a career in mainstream print media, then you could argue shorthand is needed. Many
years ago I proposed to our dean that we teach Teeline (rather than Pittman’s) on
the journalism major at Deakin. She said that was the role for the local TAFE, and
not a university.
Given the dramatic drop in jobs at newspapers in the US (see my blog squinn.org for
details), and if that trend carries over into Australia, we could argue that more jobs will be available online and in other forms of new media. Then we have
to ask if shorthand is relevant, given many of the newer jobs will involve
re-purposing of content (yes, an ugly phrase but the best I have) and editing rather than reporting.
Bottom line: if educating reporters, then shorthand is still necessary. If educating
Over to you.
BTW: If you’re a journalism student, I’d love to hear from you too.