A discussion of contemporary issues in media ethics, with olives and a twist. Made with only the freshest ingredients, shaken, stirred and poured over ice. I should also mention that I do like the odd, occasional martini. Bombay Sapphire gin and Lillet, dry and plenty of salty olives. Welcome to this cocktail of journalism and alcohol. A fine combination!

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Who's still teaching shorthand?

Here in New Zealand all journalism schools require students to be proficient in T-line Shorthand at around 60-80 wpm before they can graduate.

The shorthand requirement is mandated by the NZ Journalists Training Organisation (JTO) as a Unit Standard for the qualification the National Diploma in Journalism. The diploma is a level 5 qualification, the equivalent to the first year of a university degree.

The journalism training in the Polytechnic system follows this syllabus quite closely while the university-based courses are at level 7 (3rd year undergraduate) or levels 8/9 Postgraduate Diploma and Masters level.

The JTO is an industry-funded body and industry members of the various J-schools' advisory committees are also strongly committed to the teaching and learning of shorthand.

While it's a requirement of the level 5 diploma (worth 15 credit points) there is some debate about the suitability of making shorthand a full 15 point paper within the normal academic framework of a bachelor's degree or postgraduate qualification.

Personally I'm not convinced that shorthand is still a necessary skill for 21st century journalists. I am forming the view that it is an antiquated technology that can easily be replaced with a variety of cheap, easy-to-use and unobtrusive digital recording devices that allow for accurate transcription of quotes and notes.

Here are a number of counter arguments that I've heard and I'm keen to see some real debate about this amongst journalism educators.

Arguments in favour of shorthand
  • shorthand notes are a legal document that can be used as evidence in a court case
  • shorthand is a vital skill for court reporters because in most jurisdictions cameras and recorders are not allowed in court during proceedings; further transcripts are hard to get from court officials and they take time to be released to the media
  • in New Zealand reporters are paid a bonus if they keep their shorthand up above a minimum speed requirement
I think things are changing. Increasingly cameras are being seen in courts, though I understand that this is an uneven process. I also don't think that reporters are called upon to give evidence from their shorthand notes in many court cases; so this is a "just in case" type of argument in effect. Finally, the bonus is a matter of a handful of dollars a week.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that by insisting that accredited journalism schools teach shorthand (often at great expense), the industry is merely pushing the cost onto the students and the tertiary education system. maybe the employers should be paying for it; either by subsidising the j schools to teach it, or doing it in-house once they get their hands on our graduates.

I'm currently looking into this issue in other countries and I'd be very keen to hear from journalism educators and working reporters about the use-value of shorthand. I know that anecdotally some of our graduates are alleged to say things like "shorthand is the most useful thing I learned at journalism school."

If this is really the case that what are we doing? Surely the value of a good education in journalism is more than 80 wpm of T-line.

The global situation?
A quick google search turned up some interesting material about the teaching of shorthand, including this interesting prediction that it would disappear from the journalism curriculum in 5-10 years...this was in 1998:

Bernie Corbett, national organizer for Britain’s National Union of Journalists, explained that most journalism jobs there require an academic “qualification.” And, he said, most print journalism degree programs require shorthand skills of 100 words per minute.

“Currently, trainers and editors still maintain that it is an indispensable core skill,” Corbett said, “but modern attitudes are against them and I predict the requirement will be dropped some time in the next five to ten years.”

Then again, is shorthand likely to become the next battle ground between the industry and the academy? Certainly that appears to be the case in the UK where the industry training body the NCTJ has been making the argument that journalism courses are too "academic" and not "practical" enough. According to Andy Bull, a senior NCTJ official, shorthand is still an essential:
"For editors and for the NCTJ, shorthand is essential. Universities have a problem with shorthand because they see it purely as a mechanical skill. Never mind that it is hard to manage as a foreign language."
I found this quote in a blog by Steve Hill, a lecturer in electronic publishing at Southampton Solent University, where he discusses Bull's piece from the British Journalism Review. Unfortunately the full copy of Andy's piece is not available online.

I also found an Australian reference to the JSchool run by Professor John Henningham in Brisbane (Queensland). Students in his privately-run programme do get some shorthand training.

I'm keen to hear from journalism educators and reporters on this issue.
To kick off some discussion, here's the txt of an email my colleague Stephen Quinn sent from Deakin University in Victoria (Australia):

The relevance depends on what you are educating J students for. If for
a career in mainstream print media, then you could argue shorthand is needed. Many
years ago I proposed to our dean that we teach Teeline (rather than Pittman's) on
the journalism major at Deakin. She said that was the role for the local TAFE, and
not a university.

Given the dramatic drop in jobs at newspapers in the US (see my blog squinn.org for
details), and if that trend carries over into Australia, we could argue that more jobs will be available online and in other forms of new media. Then we have
to ask if shorthand is relevant, given many of the newer jobs will involve
re-purposing of content (yes, an ugly phrase but the best I have) and editing rather than reporting.

Bottom line: if educating reporters, then shorthand is still necessary. If educating
editors, debatable.

Over to you.
BTW: If you're a journalism student, I'd love to hear from you too.


Anonymous said...

Hi Martin,

Thanks for the link and your comments on my blog.I work in a university in the UK and we've just decided to make the shorthand unit an option (it was compulsory before).

The teaching of shorthand is controversial because it raises debates over the purpose of teaching journalism at undergraduate degree level. How much time do you spend teaching craft skills compared to academic /theoretical issues?

If you are going to teach shorthand you have to do it well. You need to give the students a reasonable chance of reaching 100 wpm or above.

This usually involves timetabling in large amounts classroom hours. And if students are spending hours doing this then, guess what? They spend less time learning another important skill.

It may be my imagination, but I am detecting a softening of attitudes towards shorthand in the industry. The new converged world of journalism requires numerous technical skills to be taught. Shorthand is certainly important, but there are so many other things to consider.

Anonymous said...

james hollings
lecturer in journalism
massey university
This is an interesting issue and one that comes up from time to time. My personal opinion - based on my experience as a journalist, and now educator - is that shorthand plays a very useful, perhaps even vital part in the making of a journalist. Not simply through the acquisition of a mechanical skill, which is what most of the debate seems to be about. What's just as important are the development of a sense of tradecraft, or professionalism in students; they feel they have something they have learned which sets them apart and this does an enormous amount for their self-confidence; it's something they have to work hard at and as we all know when you invest in something you value it more; but also, and this is the most important thing - it reinforces the importance of accuracy, of every little word and comma, and of listening. Wasn't one (not the only one) of the lessons of the David Kelly/ BBC saga that good notetaking is important? Martin's right to ask where are we supposed to fit in all the new stuff such as convergence and digital tech, but to me that is mostly - as he says - editing or production stuff and not as important as producing reporters who know that being able to report others accurately doesn't compromise their own critical stance.

Unknown said...

Isn't the craft versus academic teaching argument a bit precious?

Law students have to learn about, for example, the laws of evidence, court procedure, etc, as part of their degree. They also do mooting. Basic skills of the craft.

I suspect that in time the need for shorthand will die out, once voice recognition software becomes cheap and widespread. But for now, I think shorthand needs to be kept.

And yep, I hated learning it when I studied journalism.

Anonymous said...

I'm studying it AUT now. I think it will be useful even though it's a bit of a drag to learn. There's always times when you aren't allowed recording devices, or the place is so noisy it's hard to pick up one voice on a dictaphone.

Craig Ranapia said...

There's always times when you aren't allowed recording devices, or the place is so noisy it's hard to pick up one voice on a dictaphone.

And here's something else, anonymous: When I was a working hack (a very long time ago) it was interesting how many people would just clam up at the sight of a dictaphone.

Isn't the craft versus academic teaching argument a bit precious?

It certainly is, Rob. I don't know how much use 'theoretical' mastery is when you're barely capable of writing a coherent and meaningful sentence.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Martin. It's an issue worth discussing.

In the recent feature film "A Mighty Heart" there's a scene where
Pakistani police go through Daniel Pearl's possessions after his
kidnapping. Someone finding a notebook flicks through it and asks
suspiciously, "There's some codes?" Pearl's wife answers: "This is
shorthand. He's a journalist."

The exchange makes a nice point about a respected tool of journalists,
even in a world of myriad forms of electronic communication and
recording. We still write things down, and being able to write people's words quickly is invaluable. It's an index of journalists' pride in
their professionalism and in particular their concern with accuracy.

I have encountered amazement from newspaper editors that university
journalism students don't routinely study shorthand. Several editors
have made the point that, with three or more years at their disposal to develop journalism skills, students have the perfect and obvious opportunity to master shorthand. Instead, when (or if) they get a job, recruits have the burden of learning shorthand while working hard at being a useful member of the newsroom.

Getting ambiguous or even negative signals from their teachers about the value of shorthand is a sure way for students not to bother. It is a difficult and tedious task to master the outlines and short forms and to build up speed. Yet no-one who has achieved reasonable shorthand skills ever regrets it. And it's a skill with many side benefits. For students, for a start, students can use shorthand to take better lecture
notes. And it's a good discipline for students to work hard at
achieving a practical skill. (Like learning a musical instrument or a
foreign language, or even memorising great speeches or poetry.)

At Jschool we require shorthand of our students, and with industry
advice included a shorthand component in our accredited Diploma of Journalism course. The requirement is for a speed of 60 words a minute, and we teach Teeline. Some students don't get their diploma because
they haven't completed the shorthand requirement, but none of our graduates is ever anything but grateful for being 'prodded' to achieve this useful skill.

Best wishes,


John Henningham
Director, Jschool: Journalism Education & Training

Anonymous said...

I think its a useful skill... its a real art and a credit to the person who has mastered it. Im not a journalist im a chef, my good friend is a journalist. I understand shorthand is hard to master but in my opinion its a skill that shouldnt be lost, its as important as any other subject.

Its what makes a journalist.

Jan Latham said...

Am so glad I learned Gregg shorthand in 9th and 10th grades. I used it my entire life and found it very useful--it helped me get jobs where employers were duly impressed and nearly shouted "Eureka!" At age 75, I still use shorthand even though my speed has slowed somewhat. So sorry that young kids today don't have a clue what it is.

Jeannette Bond said...

Hello there

I am a Teelind shorthand tutor in the UK and up until this year most of my students have been journalists. However this year we have had quite an interest from PAs and secretaries - is it making a comeback?

The journalist students at our local uni have to achieve 60 wpm to graduate. We sometimes hold intensive courses over 3 full days (with lots of little breaks) if they have learnt the theory well they achieve. Last week we held a three day intensive prior to 100 wpm they need to have 80 wpm to be admitted to the course. Shorthand is a wonderful skill, it would be such a shame to drop it - audio equipment can break down/batteries run out etc but a journalist will always have his/her shorthand.

Jeannette Bond