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How Closed Captioning Works

Guest post by Lindsay Stoker, RPR, CSR (reprinted with permission)

My Google News Alerts has been exploding with a recent instance of Zooey Deschanel, instead of Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, being mistakenly identified as the 19-year-old Boston Marathon bombing suspect in a local Fox affiliate’s closed captions. The different news reports I am coming across make it clear that very few people outside of the Deaf/HOH community know how it works so I thought I would start small and post something here.

For live coverage, closed captioning is most often performed by court reporters, trained stenographers that takes what is being said, understands it, holds the stream of information since the speaker is speaking continuously, translates it into a different language so you can press the right keys on the funny machine, and then executes the stroke by moving all ten fingers and pressing the right keys simultaneously. That action is then routed from the steno machine that is hooked up to your laptop into the specialized software that takes that language, converts it against a dictionary of steno strokes and their English equivalents, and it comes out in English IF and ONLY IF that manual execution is PERFECTLY accomplished. If the steno stroke does not match, it does not translate.

It all sounds dizzying; right?

Now take that complex process and multiply it by a slow-and-steady rate range of 180 words per minute to my record clock-out rate of 360 words a minute. Then consider the fact that, during times of extensive live news coverage, closed captioners perform this task for hours and hours on end with few to no commercial breaks. Don’t forget to take into account the nature of the material that is being disseminated: is it technical in nature, with 20 letter-long terms that we are required to become mini-experts on so we can understand and execute the difference between claustrum, the thin layer of gray matter between the white matter of the external capsule and the extreme capsule of the brain, and colostrum, the thin, milky fluid which is secreted by the mammary glands around the time of giving birth?

To execute those lengthier terms, court reporters come up with one-stroke briefs so we can stay with the speaker. For example, this captioner’s brief for Zooey Deschanel was, I suspect, Z*D, and the brief for Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev was D*Z. When you take into account the fact that he/she was performing under these conditions for hours, the gaffe is a little more understandable.

It is NOT, as the Examiner is reporting, that the “stenographer… thought they were being funny by inserting “Zooey Deschanel” in place of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s hard-to-pronounce name, which really doesn’t sound similar to Zooey’s name at all. Or maybe the stenographer misheard the newscaster saying the name” (http://www.examiner.com/article/zooey-deschanel-caption-closed-captioning-fail-labels-zooey-a-bombing-suspect). Even worse, it is CERTAINLY not, as commenters on the Huffington Post are alleging, poor reporting on the parts of the newscasters.

It was a simple glitch that someone didn’t catch, much to the amusement of many, including Ms. Deschanel herself. And with so much horrible news going around this week, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing anyway. 🙂

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