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Shorthand or the Dictaphone, a 21st century dilemma 30 November 2008

Posted by jordanfarley in Shorthand.
Tags: , , , ,


The merits of shorthand versus recording on audio devices have long been debated among journalism students and professional hacks alike. For previous generations shorthand was an essential skill due to the absence of portable recording devices, but for the current generation of journalists a device smaller than your average phone (or your phone itself) can be used to capture hours of audio, word for word, perfect for those once in a lifetime interviews.

Just this week the results of the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) convergence skills survey, announced at the NCTJ Journalism Skills Conference in Salford, revealed a clear concern among employers that traditional skills like shorthand were lacking in new recruits. Kim Fletcher, NCTJ chairman, says in his introduction to the findings that a worrying gap in the ability of recruits to write shorthand was reported, a skill which is “as vital as ever”, with 43% of employers in the survey highlighting shorthand as an area where there was a skills gap.


 “Shorthand notes offer an instantly accessible record of events that can be skimmed over in a matter of seconds rather than minutes” 


As far back as 1925 the Dictaphone company was spouting the advantages of Dictaphones over shorthand, however even today shorthand has several crucial benefits over recording devices, and these aren’t ever likely to change. Firstly shorthand is 100% mobile, you can take a shorthand notebook and pen pretty much anywhere, those skilled enough in shorthand can even use it on the move. It can be hard to record calls over a LAN line as arrangements must usually be made in advance, ruling out the ability to capture calls which come in out of the blue (although there is a service available in America that does solve this problem, at a cost). Recording devices are not legally allowed in UK courts so shorthand is your only choice there if you want accurate quotes and, as I have found, there are still people who feel uncomfortable being recorded for an interview.

Secondly shorthand carries much more weight as a legal document than a recording (which is usually inadmissible in court). This seems a little bit illogical to me as I would find it much easier to tamper with my own notes than doctor an audio recording, but as long as professional journalists are required to keep good quality written notes for up to five years for legal reasons they will have to make sure their shorthand is up to scratch.

Finally the biggest advantage of shorthand according to Denis Campbell, Observer sports reporter, is that it is so much faster to use than an audio recording. In an environment where rapid filing requirements are standard (such as at sports events), it isn’t practical for journalists to be rewinding audio devices and searching for that essential quote or bit of information. Shorthand notes offer an instantly accessible record of events that can be skimmed over in a matter of seconds rather than minutes.


“Those of us who have shorthand like to think that it is vital, but is it any more important than an ability to type fast enough for Twitter?”


Recording devices on the other hand have the obvious advantage that they can capture a conversation exactly, there’s no excuse for missing out on juicy quotes. The other crucial advantage of recording an interview is that not having to constantly look down at a notepad allows for a much more natural conversation, and usually a much better interview. Also, as Rick Waghorn told us in a recent lecture, “You can’t make a podcast out of a shorthand quote.” While this is a valid comment any journalist working in podcasts is likely to use professional recording equipment or invite guests into a recording studio if their comments are intended for broadcast.

It’s pretty clear from all this that neither practice should be favoured over the other. A notepad and pen is much more reliable than a digital recording device, which is subject to limitations of battery life and space, but only so long as your shorthand is up to scratch. I can tell you from experience that knowing the theory and using shorthand in a real interview are two very different things, and so far I am very glad I have had my digital recorder to fall back on.

Charlie Beckett says on his blog, “Those of us who have shorthand like to think that it is vital, but is it any more important than an ability to type fast enough for Twitter?” This might be confusing matters by bringing typing into the debate but his point is clear, with all manner of ways to take notes how do we decide which one is best? Ultimately it comes down to a combination of the lot of them, at least it better had or I am going to be very angry about all those 9 am shorthand classes.

Video courtesy of ltlnphngrphfrth1e6 under Creative Commons licence.



1. Sean Kaiserman - 5 December 2008

Interesting article. im a journalist and have had this issue for a while now and tried many different recording devices and shorthand formats.

Theres a new product on the market that allows you to record calls on the go without hardware of software called recordiapro (www.recordiapro.com). im pretty happy with it so far- the only thing is that the recordings are available in mp3 and i wouldnt mind wav

2. jordanfarley - 5 December 2008

That seems pretty useful but is it only available in America at the moment? I am sure they could take it around the world no problem.

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