Study Finds High Error Rate in Transcriptions of Black Dialect

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Court reporters regularly garble transcriptions of African-American dialect, casting doubt on the integrity of the official record of court proceedings, The New York Times reports from a soon-to-be-published study in the linguistic journal Language. Researchers played audio recordings of a series of sentences spoken in African-American English and asked 27 stenographers who work in courthouses in Philadelphia to transcribe them. On average, the reporters made errors in two out of every five sentences, according to the study.

In one example, one court reporter transcribed what was actually said — “he don’t be in that neighborhood” — as, instead, “We going to be in this neighborhood,” the opposite meaning. The researchers found that the court reporters were not transcribing with any malicious intent. But some of them did have a very limited understanding of black dialect. Black court reporters who participated in the study made errors in transcribing at roughly the same rate as their white peers. The study’s authors faulted the training that court reporters received, saying that it mostly used “classroom” English. African-Americans are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, and so training should take that into consideration, researchers said. The findings indicate a deeper problem than flawed transcripts, New York criminal defense lawyer Anthony Ricco pointed out. “If the court reporters are missing the story,” he said, “the jurors are missing the story.”

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