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Is it a reporter’s job to prevent a speaker from looking ridiculous?

workshop lead by Mr. D’Arcy McPherson (by Skype)

Prague, 29th September 2012

Mr. McPherson (Managing Editor of Debates for the Senate of Canada) unfortunately was not able to come to Prague, but expresses he looks forward to share views.

Introduction to the workshop by Mr. McPherson

The workshop will examine reporting and editing styles in the legislative and legal environments and the role that the verbatim reporter plays.

  • What constitutes verbatim text?
  • Does polishing text detract or enhance the speaker’s message?
  • Is it the role of the reporter or editor to alter what was heard by the listeners at the first instance?
  • How do different jurisdictions address malapropisms, misspeaks, or misinformation?

I know that we all come to this discussion from different places, not only geographically but also philosophically. As for me, I began my career training as a machine shorthand reporter in the legal environment. I was taught to write everything that was spoken. We were to write every word and every speaker in the same way, without questioning, to ensure the integrity of the record. My job was certainly not to edit, embellish or modify – no matter how ridiculous a lawyer or witness might sound.

Twenty-three years ago I was introduced to legislative reporting and my entire approach to reporting and editing changed. Within Canada the Senate of Canada is an interesting body. There are those who would argue that it is a chamber which was born of the 19th century and there are elements of our procedures which have changed little since that time. Up until recently, our reporting and editing styles could fall into that category as well.

The explanation for the greater jurisdiction for the reporter/editor in the legislative environment is that we are preparing a document which must stand for historical, traditional and often academic review. Members or Senators in debate are often under a great deal of stress, there are often extraneous comments being shouted out, and it is our role to tidy things up so that the message is clearly conveyed. To reflect in the written word how the speaker might have wished or ought to have correctly said it in the first place. This is not a sworn testimony, this is political discourse.

It is important to stress that, for us, it is important that personal flavour, especially of a regional distinction, is accurately reported. This does require of the editor an expansive knowledge of idiomatic and non-standard language usage and to understand that what may seem a perfectly ridiculous construct in the west of a region is perfectly acceptable in the east. We will try to place ourselves in the mind of the speaker and understand their motivations.

Though we continue to apply the kindly sponge of sympathetic oblivion by dabbing away at the verbal blemishes, the improper grammar, the mixed metaphors, the inaccurate references, the false starts and the contractions – we are more and more restrained in our efforts, at least in the Senate. The increased use of technology, particularly in a metadata environment, means that the text cannot be as dynamic or changeable as it once was. We have also noticed that in polarized and politicized times, the written word is often compared to the audio and scrutinized for any possible sign of political weakness or advantage.

Another interesting aspect of legislative reporting – at least in some legislatures – is the ability for the member to review his or her speech and request revisions after the fact. This is not something that is allowed everywhere and it may shock some textual purists, but it is a service that is often very much appreciated and can take the guess work out of trying to determine the intention of the speaker. The final decision, at least at the Senate of Canada, rests with the managing editor. Not all changes are accepted and it can often be difficult to explain to the person who was speaking why their words were not acceptable or their changes inappropriate. Here we try to be more diplomatic and avoid references to words like “ridiculous”.

At this point I would like to open up the discussion in the groups to better understand the policies of your jurisdiction and the reasons for them. I want you to think about the following questions:

  • What constitutes verbatim text?
  • Does polishing text detract or enhance the speaker’s message?
  • Is it the role of the reporter or editor to alter what was heard by the listeners at the first instance?
  • How do different jurisdictions address malapropisms, misspeak or misinformation?

Feedback given to the questions

Group 2 (Karen Yates)

(The group is comprised of representatives from France, Germany, Holland, Korea, and the US.)

What constitutes verbatim text?

We had a very lively discussion throughout this session. We concluded that practises on these topics vary widely. Some of our countries have verbatim standards that are different from others. For instance: verbatim in Korea and the US means you do not change any words. That would be in de US in the judicial system and in Korea both in the judicial system and in parliament. But in our parliament, the Congress, some changes would be allowed. But in places like Germany and France they would be permitted to make small edited changes and they would still consider this to be a verbatim text.

In the Netherlands sometimes they add not only the spoken words, but there would be some instances where they would add gestures or someone who is bumping on the table. So they would put in parentheses information that would be more then just the words spoken. That is fascinating.

Does policing text detract or enhance the speaker’s message?

Again we found that there are differences among the countries. Small edits would be permitted in places like the parliament and it would make the final product even better. In other instances, like in legal settings, where someone, for instance, in a criminal proceeding is giving their statement, their testimony it would detract from it. It would make it a worse product if we permitted any changes. That would not enhance the value of that.

Is it the role of the reporter or editor to alter what was heard by the listeners at the first instance?

It really depends on the purpose of the text that we are creating. If the purpose is, for instance, in parliament where it is going to be a historical document as D’Arcy described, than it would be our role to fix things up. In other instances we said: you just have to do your job and write what you hear, and it is not your role to try to think and fix things.

How do different jurisdictions address malapropisms, misspeak or misinformation?

How do we deal with words being used improperly or someone making a mistake and saying 4 million dollars when they really meant to say 400 dollars. Here again it various from place to place. Many places they say you have to check back with the speaker first before you are permitted as the reporter or editor to make that change. In some places you would check maybe with your supervisor to see if that kind of change is permitted.

Thank you again for giving us a chance to do this. It is fun to learn these things about the way other people do things.

Group 1 (Robert Brown)

(Robert Brown mentions that he is not a reporter. He is interested in the capturing process for professional reporters.)

What constitutes verbatim text?

I converge recording when it is perceived in the arena. It is very important for the judicial process. It gets very, very complicated in the legislative process.

One of the things that we have now is the availability of the digital audio/video recording which is inherently verbatim. From that starting point we can say: does polishing detract or does it enhance the record produced from the verbatim electronic strain? The answer is: yes, it does.

Striving towards accuracy and clarity forces the reporter to become an editor, as we support the creation of the record of a legislative process. It is just a fact of the task of creating an accurate, clear depiction of what went on. It was not clear whether that role of polishing extends to altering the content, because in the reporter’s mind that leads to clarity and accuracy. It is just a dilemma. In terms of the sensitivity to the variety of usages of the words spoken and heard in the arena it is just another dilemma. The idea is to connect the speaker’s message to the audience. We said: There is more than one audience out there. That is another dilemma. From my perspective, if we are trying to deliver clarity and accuracy, we would have to focus on the language used at the forum. It is up to those who have different word usage patterns to interpret the standard language of the forum.

I believe the goal is: a timely, accurate, and clear depiction of what was said. In terms of the regionalized language the perception was to adhere to the language used at the forum. Those who are in different regions are required to interpret for their own local audience. So again, we are trying to get the message of the speaker to the “standard” audience, as if they were at the proceedings themselves.

Group 3 (Anna Jankowska-Wróbel)

(The group is comprised of representatives of Finland, Germany, Poland, and Korea.)

The group focused on the main question: Is it a reporter’s job to prevent a speaker from looking ridiculous? The group came to the conclusion that it has more questions than answers. There are many factors which have to be considered and that influence our job. If we can identify a mistake as a simple lapsus, we accept a correction. However, there is still the issue of interpretation. What is the lapsus and what is, for example, a throat mistake? That is another question. What is the definition of sounding ridiculous? In Poland there is a special television program. It shows the most ridiculous, the most silly speeches of the day. That is why reporters keep the most crazy and ridiculous speeches just as they were spoken, because they are sure that in the evening it will be showed on television. We have to consider that.

However, if a speaker is just searching for words or is making some spelling errors, we identify this as lapsus and we correct his words.

Somebody from Germany was telling about making corrections in the court. She talked about mistakes that lawyers make by mixing sentences. They mix sentences because they are sure they are experts in an area. However, they are not. So they accept corrections and they make the sentences gramatically correct.

We also mentioned the dilemma of who has the authority to accept the final corrections. Is it the employee responsible for preparing the verbatim report? Is it the marshal? Is it the member of parliament? It happens that members of parliament authenticate the speech. Who has the authority to make the final decision?

Other factors were mentioned, like the origin of the speaker. For example, if something is correct in the south of the country, it does not have to be in the capital. Something that is acceptable in the province, does not have to be acceptable in the plenary hall.

The representative from Finland raised the following point. Are we the cleverest, the smartest? Are we really the ones who should interpret whether the speaker made a mistake? Are we sure that he really did? Maybe what sounds ridiculous is really what the speaker wanted to say. So that is a new question. Are we the judges?


Mr. McPherson thanks the participants for the presentations and their participation.

He thinks we would all agree that in a comparison of legal and legislative reporting one can clearly see a variation in the degree of verbatim that can be applied, as well as the difference between reporters and editors, and the role that each plays. In judicial or quasi-judicial reporting a person’s life of livelihood may depend on ensuring that every word is reflected in the record.

In many legislatures there is a more generous application of verbatim to produce a polished and historical record. Mr. McPherson says Karen mentioned the matter in which reporters are able to input gestures or signs in the Netherlands. He would love to be able to do that. It would make interesting reading. When we edit Members or Senators, there is an understanding that what we are doing is for their benefit and for the benefit of others, hopefully making them look less ridiculous, and making the public more clearly understand the debates.

Is one manner of reporting better than the other? Is it our job to eliminate ridiculousness? For some of us it is, for others it is contrary to the principles of an impartial record. Mr. McPherson finds the discussion on how to apply these different perspectives and how the rules are applied in different regions interesting.

There does seem to be a shift toward a stricter verbatim product for political, technological and financial expediency. However, he suspects that the discussion of the acceptable level of verbatim transcription and its ramifications will be a discussion for the IPRS and other organizations for years to come.

Ms. Horlings hopes that Mr. McPherson will be able to join the meetings next year in Ghent.

The program of the second day will change because of the absence of Mr. Fabrizio Verruso. An altered agenda will be distributed.

(End of day one)

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