Transcription Transgressions

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While August 2012 still feels like fall before last on remembering my second and final layoff from the newspaper profession, June 2013 seems longer than the six years it maths out when I recall that month’s part-time job, transcriptionist at the University of Arkansas Pryor Center for Oral and Visual History.

Those few hours a week did teach me two lessons I won’t forget, the value of transcriptions and the fallacy of transcriptions. Visiting the Pryor Center for a book reading inspired me to ink these up.

While my next university job was the 2014-15 term at its journalism department, the courses I taught did not have an opening for a reporting exercise I hadn’t seen anywhere (which doesn’t mean it’s not done). In some beginning or intermediate journalism class, it’d be cool to present a 3- to 5-minute recording excerpt, such as from the Pryor Center, and have the students transcribe it. By transcribe I mean word for word, with all the stumbles and repeats the least and greatest of us utter when speaking.

They would be encouraged to repeat the tape as often as needed, using a free transcription software app. Afterward, I’d hand out or put on a screen the official transcript so they’d see what they missed.

The only students who could get an A+, one would predict, would be someone who was a former stenographer.

I’ve mentioned this academic/vocational training to journalist friends and they pooh-pooh it. To a one they’re proud of their note-taking accuracy with and without electronically recording the interviews. I would agree with them, sincerely. A good reporter or just a competent one could read direct quotes back to the subject and the subject would agree that’s exactly what was said.

But my eight weeks at the Pryor Center taught me that occasionally different words appear or even change when you hear a few seconds at a time, type them in then relisten yet again to check accuracy, even when you slow down the playback to make sure. I found this every shift.

It was a fascinating exercise for me, frustrating, tedious yet with feelings of accomplishment when 5 or 10 minutes was nailed down, which of necessity took hours, even for the experienced co-workers. The Pryor Center recordings go through several transcriptionists’ headphones to assure accuracy, not unlike top traditional newspapers send reported articles though levels of editors then proofreaders. On the last, published journalistic mistakes still show up as we’re human. The center for quality control has the subjects review and approve PDFs or print-outs of the transcripts.

Maybe it would just fit my personality, but one solid tough-love taste of transcribing as opposed to conventional note-taking would improve journalistic accuracy and vaccinate a dose of humility that would last a long time.

Not every subject in heard in the center, notable Arkansawyers, spoke spontaneously with occasional mumbles or oral edits.

Politicians, and college leaders such as coaches, were polished smooth. These folks I realized often retold to the center the stories they expounded on to audiences and media. The anecdotes of childhood and early successes and failures gained a sheen not to mention narrative structure on the banquet and talk show circuit. They are memoirs in the making, autobiographies of a sort.

When a notable but reserved businessman or university trustee gets an opportunity to sit in a video studio (or the equipment and crew are brought to their living room), they’re often facing some tell-me-about questions for the first time. They have to think before speaking under lights: Was it sixth grade or eighth when they kissed a certain someone? Was it age 17 they had that after-school retail job or did the lawn-mowing enterprise come before it?

These opposites led to the insight of a second conclusion: Oral histories have components of factuality but at the same time they’re hogwash.

When oft-told, a memory or fact-based fable has been buffed through remembering, rethinking and retelling. The key components stay in, the weaknesses filter out, the boring and contradictory bits dragged to the trash folder.

In transcribing you hear the hesitation as these important and generally older subjects struggle to recollect. In typing the words you indicate pauses, stammers, partially repeated then altered phrase and the like. The transcriptionist has to wonder how certain is the subject when the voice pitches higher was the end of a sentence? With a little empathy the typer realizes the speaker may be considering the impact of the words on the people she or he is talking about — and rewording to avoid hurt feelings.

Documents also have errors, any historian can tell you. Their solution to some extent with these two sorts of sources is tying quality with quantity — multiple records to cross-check and multiple voices to corroborate.

That’s OK. Neither academic nor informal history is sworn testimony. But as I’ve come to enjoy hearing or seeing these recordings or reading the final PDFs from the center’s website, you realize you must have handy your Morton’s canister of thousands of grains of salt.

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