More on shorthand from the UK Press Gazette

The UK Press Gazette has a very interesting online feature – a student journalism blog. A recent post by Dave Lee suggests that all young journos should not only be on Facebook and other social networking sites; they should also be using them as generators of story ideas and as a good place to find sources. This is not such a new idea any more. There’s a recent and growing movement in the US for something the proponents are calling “beatblogging”. There’s even a blog site devoted to it. The mission of this collaborative project is to figure out how journalists can better use social networking sites to improve their reporting and writing.

A big ask perhaps, but it does, in a round-about way, lead me back to shorthand. I’ve been canvassing opinion on three continents about this and, to be frank, it’s a bit of a circular argument.

There are two entrenched positions.

Shorthand is essential. It’s the only way to get accurate quotes quickly; it has legal status; it’s the only way to cover court satisfactorily and why would anyone want to laboriously transcribe an interview.

The alternative I’ll call the “Shorthand is passe” school. This group argues that shorthand is way passed its use-by date. It’s out-moded; recording is just as (if not more) accurate and technology has basically replaced the need for shorthand.

There’s merit in both arguments; though my position does tend to fall within the second camp. In the days of digital media and convergence having audio or video is important. Websites are moving away from being text-dependent and multimedia grabs from interviews are valuable online assests. So too are transcripts.

The argument here – that transcription takes a long time – is essentially valid, but the pro-tech group is not suggesting that an interview has to fully transcribed before deadline. Anyone who’s worked in radio and/or TV knows that the time-line attached to any actuality is a quick and easy way to find the key quotes and transcribing just these grabs is no slower than having to write up the quote from shorthand notes.

However, that was a clever digression to allow me to put up more of my arguments. There is an interesting post on the Press Gazette student journalism blog where Dave Lee argues that it is still an essential tool for all journalists (even though, he admits, he doesn’t have it himself).

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.

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

So we’re not closer to an answer on the vexed question of keep it or ditch it. For now the status quo remains and it stays in our syllabus.

In the meantime, what do students think? Here’s one comment from an American journalism student who’s resorted to teaching himself.

You can track this debate through these links.

Shorthand debate goes global

Responses to shorthand post

Corridor commentaries: shorthand #2

Who’s still teaching shorthand?


3 Responses to More on shorthand from the UK Press Gazette

  1. undergroundnetwork says:

    Hi Martin,

    I’ve given this a lot of thought and I’m inclined to believe shorthand is essential. Although I admit I find it difficult to learn (this perhaps has more to do with the 8 o’clock classes and me skipping class to watch European football!), I can see the virtue of being able to use it in practice. I’ve decided I am going to make a special effort to learn it as fast as I can, and hopefully be capable early in the second semester. This is because often I cannot record an interview digitally, for example on the phone or in some interviews, and find scrawling notes in long hand to be futile. To be told that many working journalists have this skill and find it to be vital reinforces my view that I need to be competent in shorthand. I actually look forward to being able to do it, although I still don’t look forward to the 8 o’clock lectures!

    Enjoy your holiday!


  2. Amberleigh says:

    Shorthand is definitely a good skill to know, but yeah, it’s a mission to learn at 8am!
    I’m kind of living in hope that I’ll somehow land a sweet job where I can take on AUT interns to transcribe all my interviews for me …


  3. James Murray says:

    I can see the benefit of knowing shorthand in court but for me it stops there.

    I dont tend to use extremely long quotes in stories – usually soundbites and these are easily written down if you are listening to your interviewee properly.

    I also find that having to concentrate on shorthand when you interview someone stops you from engaging with them – much better to be comfortable and engaged in the conversation. You are able to think on your feet this way and be flexible about the questions you are asking.

    The best interviews I have done (i.e. the most interesting) have come from tape recorded interviews. The argument that it takes too long to transcribe is bunkum – simple notes of the interview and a knowledge of the order in which you asked your questions alongside basic ability to use the recorder means that getting to the juicy quote they said halfway through the interview takes less than a minute.

    If we do have to learn shorthand as a hoop jumping exercise – we should do it later in the day when my head actually works!

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