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Panpa Bulletin : May 2006
May 2006 PaNPa bULLETIN |53 MEDIa MaTTERS MarK PearSon We established in this column last month, with the help of Rupert Murdoch and The Australian's editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, that accuracy is a hallmark of credible journalism, a vital point of difference between newspa- pers and new media. If that is so, and we are still indeed in the truth business, how do we ensure the accuracy of our copy, partic- ularly the quotes we attribute to others? By insisting our reporters write shorthand, of course. We all know the benefits, and the larger newspaper groups re- quire cadets to write 120 words per minute before grading them, but how many editors follow through with the requirement when hiring experienced jour- nalists? Many a final year cadet has bypassed the shorthand test by doing a year or two on suburban or country newspapers and then getting a graded position on a metro daily. Others have moved to casual subbing shifts for a pe- riod before emerging as a graded sub and then reporter. The late cadet counsellor at The Advertiser in Adelaide, Bob Jervis, sang the praises of short- hand in his entry-level text, News Sense. He explained he had be- come somewhat "soft" on the shorthand requirement in the early 1970s, thinking tape record- ers were destined to make short- hand obsolete. His reawakening came when he hosted a mock press confer- ence for cadets on the eve of a Royal tour in 1971. "I was deliber- ately controversial and there was quite good copy for the note-tak- ing," Jervis recounted. "The re- sults, in some cases, were rather alarming. "Certain cadets attributed to me assertions which, if reported to the appropriate authorities, would have made me a prime candidate for the Bloody Tower. Some of the stories submitted were grossly inaccurate. "At the time The Advertiser Cadet Corps included two short- hand 'speed merchants'. They took shorthand notes during the interview and asked their share of questions. And the stories they wrote were pithy, studded with lively quotes -- and were accurate, to the last comma. No more am I 'soft' on shorthand." Despite most of us agree- ing with Jervis' conclusion, shorthand seems to be dying in modern journalism for four key reasons. The first is that it has effectively died in the techni- cal education sector because it is no longer a required skill for personal assistants and recep- tionists. Instead, they use tape or digital recorders. Some colleges still offer it, but classes are often cancelled for lack of enrolments. This leaves regional editors with a dilemma. Once they would send their cadets around the cor- ner to the local TAFE for instruc- tion. Now they have to seek out distance programs or, like Rural Press, introduce it on a group ba- sis at cadet training camps. Jervis went "soft" on shorthand because of the advent of person- al tape recorders. Now there are scores of recording alternatives, including pda's, mini digital re- corders, and even recording ca- pability on some mobile phones. There have also been major de- velopments in voice recognition, heralding the possibility of in- stant audio to text conversion. While the latter might over- come the major problem with earlier technologies, all of them present problems when the re- porter is in the court room or facing technical difficulties such as dead batteries, electrical mal- functions or overloaded memo- ry. Not to mention the challenges of inclement weather or danger- ous situations where a recorder might face damage or theft. Another reason for the demise of shorthand is the coinciding rise of public relations. Who needs to record a quote when a politician's spindoctor will email you a few quotes or provide you with an advance of the speech they are about to deliver? Whether or not the speaker actually utters the words you quote doesn't seem to bother many reporters. The other major reason short- hand has been on the wane is that most tertiary journalism courses do not offer it. Ours is one of only four offering shorthand among the 22 university J-courses. At Bond University, we build shorthand into our Newspaper Reporting subject, and then allow students to improve their speed as a full subject if that is their ca- reer goal. Yet, sadly, few take up that option, probably because they see graduates from other institutions sail into journalism positions without shorthand. All that said, I must admit I was one of those to escape the requirement as a rookie journal- ist. I trained on suburban and regional newspapers where edi- tors did not insist upon it, though I recall a few of us toddling off to TAFE for some short-lived classes in Pitman. It was only after requiring it of my students here at Bond some 15 years ago that I developed some Teeline speed -- 60 words per minute in a semester as I recall. However, if you don't use it you lose it, and my occasional freelance pieces have not been enough to ingrain the habit. I have only recently undertak- en a refresher course and have worked my way up to 70 words per minute. I'm getting tested at 80wpm this afternoon, along with the solitary student -- Jessica Cossell -- doing it as a subject this semester. Remember that name because Jessica will be one of the few journalism students in Australia to be graduating with 80 words per minute of shorthand at year's end. Which might just mean she's the only one in Australia who can string together more than a sen- tence or two of accurate direct quotes. My aim is to keep pace with Jessica, which is a tall order for a 48 year old absent minded pro- fessor. So, it's off to practise in the remaining hour before class. Professor Mark Pearson is the Head of Journalism at Bond University, Queensland. RIP Shorthand? another reason for the demise of shorthand is the coinciding rise of public relations. Who needs to record a quote when a politician’s spin doctor will email you a few quotes. . . Shorthand is dying in journalism, but Mark Pearson argues for a comeback.