Yes, journalists do still use shorthand – and here’s why

I’m a huge fan of McFly but Tom Fletcher, singer and guitarist, has annoyed me today.

It’s all because of this story about a disabled student who’s been told he would not be able to pass a Scottish journalism qualification as he is unable to do shorthand.

I get the uproar about this. I think that Kyle should be able to get a qualification – just perhaps with the caveat on it that it does not include shorthand, since employers will otherwise assume that his certificate will encompass that too.

He’s a teenager with cerebal palsy and journalism desperately needs more diversity, not less, so give him a chance to cut his reporting chops and get a slightly altered qualification. We don’t want to keep a good journalist out of the field just because of shorthand.

But that’s not what’s spurred me on to write this blog. Tom Fletcher chipped in with this:

“I can’t even remember the last time I saw a journalist use shorthand,” he said.

Well that’s probably because you haven’t been to a court hearing or a council meeting recently.

Of course there are lots of journalism sectors for which shorthand is now a non-essential skill. Celebrity interviews are certainly one of those – it’s much more common to just put down a dictaphone so you can have a natural conversation and there can be no argument with a PR about what was said, either.

But democracy and open justice would both fall apart without shorthand.

Good luck sending a trainee journalist to get copy from a sex offender’s trial or a council planning meeting about building on the green belt without them being able to use shorthand.

There are laws restricting anyone from filming or recording in court – it’s actually against the Contempt of Court Act 1981. If one witness listened to a recording of another witness’ court statement they could collude and provide false evidence. Other witnesses could feel like they have extra strain put on them if they know someone is, or could be, recording them in court.

So there is no way to get a full, accurate court report without using shorthand. You could jot down the main points in longhand, sure, but you’d never get the best quotes or strongest angle.

As for council meetings, have fun wading through your recording of that boring three-hour meetings. Oh, it had about 20 minutes of good quotes but you can’t remember when? Shame you don’t have them nice scribbled out in shorthand, ready to go.

Or you might go on a walkabout with the local MP, with lots of public background noise. If you’re able to just jot down the key quotes in shorthand there and then, as you go, you don’t risk missing every other word when you play it back later.

Then, of course, there’s the risk of your dictaphone running out of battery halfway through an interview – or you forgetting to turn it on in the first place. Yep, it happens.

cropped-cropped-moose1.jpg
Yep, even my blog photo has shorthand in it – that’s how much I love it

Sadly, the replies to Tom’s tweet largely copied his misconception about shorthand.

The skill was described as “pointless,” with some journalism students saying they had never yet found a need for it. Well, that all depends what job you want guys – don’t write it off just yet.

It’s really disheartening for me as a local journalist to see shorthand dismissed so widely, when my colleagues and I use it in our daily lives.

I worked really, really hard to get my shorthand up to 100wpm for my qualification and have not regretted the hours I put in once.

I’m not saying that every journalist needs shorthand when many fields can get by perfectly well without in modern times. However, it still deserves respect for what it is – a crucial skill that helps local newspapers do what they do best and hold the powers that be (and criminals) to account.

One thought on “Yes, journalists do still use shorthand – and here’s why

  1. Tim Stannard August 24, 2017 / 1:09 PM

    I agree about the usefulness of shorthand, but the witness collusion argument doesn’t hold water – there’s no reason witnesses couldn’t read shorthand (if they have the skills or access to someone who has). No different in principle to listening to a recording.

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