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You're a Journalist? Relax! Shorthand's Just Not Needed

02/11/2016 17:49

2016-11-02-1478104448-618328-media_scrum.jpg
Olivia Chow/Flickr

On Tuesday the journalistic trade seemed shaken to its very foundations by an announcement from the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) that it is to remove the requirement to study shorthand from some of its training courses .

Kim Fletcher, NCTJ Chairman, told BBC Radio 4:

"We've fought for years against quite a lot of opposition to keep shorthand... [but the] whole world of journalism is changing so quickly [and] lots of journalists are going to need to do different things working for new media organisations".

There followed the oh-so-predictable backlash on social media and a flurry of complaints to the Council. The disapproving tutting heard across much, though not all, of the industry was nicely crystallised by Huffington Post's own Deputy Political Editor on Twitter:

"@owenjbennett: This is a massive backward step. The line between fully trained journos and people who *think* they are journos blurs yet again."

HuffPo later delivered a blog, by Assistant News Editor Jack Sommers, fleshing out Owen's disgust:

"A Twitter debate began [on Tuesday] about whether journalists should learn shorthand. People who really should know better were suggesting they should not. 'Journalists don't have to learn shorthand' is a dumb argument."

Permit me to put forward that "dumb argument." In saying shorthand isn't an essential skill for many journalists operating across all media in 2016, the NCTJ is spot on. And here's why.

I have operated in local and national newsrooms for getting on for a decade, working alongside reporters delivering (hopefully!) accurate, impartial and otherwise high-quality reportage. And I estimate that I've have seen fewer than 15% of my journalistic colleagues displaying a working use of shorthand.

Why? Well, it's either because they have the skill but don't feel the need to use it frequently, they had the skill but have allowed it to lapse as it's rarely if ever been needed or they never had the skill and have never found the need to acquire it.

(There is, I suppose, a fourth possibility. They have shorthand, they never professionally use it, but they keep the skill polished at home by jotting down verbatim what the presenters of Countryfile or Bargain Hunt say. All with the aim of keeping their shorthand at 100 words per minute. We might logically term these people 'masochists'.)

Modern technology renders shorthand convenient for a journalist, but no more than that. It is not an essential skill. A dictaphone costs £20, can be carried in your pocket and whipped out at a moment's notice to record a vox pop or interview.

In fact, setting off a dictaphone while interviewing allows a reporter to engage fully with an interviewee, maintaining eye contact and chipping in with supplementaries, without the need to keep scribbling away frantically on a notepad. Later you can transcribe the pertinent sections, not having had to jot down the entire conversation in the first instance.

An audio recording is the perfect, 50MB, 100% accurate record of what was said. And as we're in the 21st century and journalists are pulled hither and thither to deliver multimedia content, one can store the audio file away for future access. Got an exclusive, like Andrea Leadsom's motherhood comments from July? Share that MP3 with colleagues for a multimedia story, get it on your website, share it with TV, radio and podcasts, even use it as a rebuttal if the MP in question claims you've misquoted or taken something out of context.

An argument against this reliance on technology is that it breaks, it fails, the battery runs low. That's bogus, in my view, because every journalist possesses a smartphone. Have the two running simultaneously to ensure a backup recording if you must, and you'll be fine. No battery on either device? You're incompetent. Both failed at the same time? Very unlucky, and probably as much chance of that happening as your spilling coffee and destroying your copious shorthand notes.

It's worth reiterating the point that everyone has a smartphone and the ability to record audio or video at a moment's notice. This is user generated content (UGC), and it's all over reportage in the 21st century. It's Black Lives Matter footage in the United States. It's John McDonnell labelling rebels moving against Jeremy Corbyn "effing useless". It's a giant Huntsman spider tucking into a dead mouse in an Australian garage.

The fact everyone has the ability to record interviews or other material on the hoof massively democratises journalism, currently an industry largely full of a certain type of person. News organisations and the people running the show should be doing all they can to open up the trade to a wider mix of contributors, to people who can deliver news in non-traditional methods. That means not limiting your talent pool only to people who have acquired what you deem to be an "essential" skill, especially when, like shorthand, that skill is inessential.

Insisting shorthand is "essential" implies that those journalists without it are under-qualified or perhaps even sub-par. HuffPo's own Owen Bennett makes that distinction himself when he distinguishes between those he regards as "full trained" and those who "think they are journos." That's insular, inaccurate and even insulting. Try telling the 85% of journalists working without shorthand in my newsroom that they're sub-par because they can't scribble at 100 words per minute.

The only arena in which shorthand is essential is in reporting from the courtroom, where audio recording devices are not permitted. This also used to be the case for local council meetings, but it's an attitude that has thankfully now been relaxed. It's to be hoped the court system soon catches up, because the current situation where a reporter can live-tweet a verdict from the press box but can't record what was said in the sentencing is contradictory and outdated.

Shorthand takes 100+ hours to learn and many more to maintain. That's time better spent gaining wider skills or, you know, doing some actual journalism. The point is not that shorthand is pointless. If you want to learn it that's wonderful; broaden your skillset. But I can think of half a dozen skills I reckon you'd be better off acquiring to help you kick on in this journalistic rat race.

Fundamentally, it seems those protesting that shorthand is essential are grizzled hacks who slogged to gain the skill and now bitterly insist everyone else must endure this rite of passage. They needn't.

There are many essential qualities and skills a journalist needs in 2016. A solid grounding in media law, knowledge of your in-house style guide and an ability to write and communicate well. A technical skillset is crucial and a nose for a story is vital, as is a certain tenacity, a willingness to chase down story cul de sacs, work crazy hours, get paid very little and have a thick skin. These are many of the essential journalistic skills - it's ludicrous to insist that shorthand be ranked among them.

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