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Court Reporters Likely Fail to Accurately Transcribe Testimony for Speakers of ‘African American English’

by Anthony Accurso 

A recent Vice.com article draws attention to a pioneering study that concludes court reporters exhibit low proficiency with African American English (“AAE”), and that the problem results in a systemic deprivation of the most basic rights in the criminal justice system. 

Rachel Jeantel was a close friend of Trayvon Martin, the black teenager who was killed by George Zimmerman in 2013. At Zimmerman’s trial, Jeantel testified about her phone conversation with Martin immediately before he was shot. Because Jeantel spoke in AAE, she was described on Fox News as “brutally ignorant” and as having a “credibility problem.” A juror on the case said she was “hard to understand” and “not credible.” 

The May 23, 2019, Vice.com article cited Jeantel’s interaction with the justice system as the inspiration for the recent study titled, “Testifying while black: An experimental study of court reporter accuracy in transcription of African American English,” by Taylor Jones, University of Pennsylvania; Jessica Kalbfeld, New York University; Ryan Hancock, Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity; and Robin Clark, University of Pennsylvania, and published in the Linguistic Society of America journal Language. 

The study authors sought to understand how well court reporters understand and transcribe AAE, and how a lack of proficiency may be disadvantaging speakers of AAE when they interact with the justice system.

They also provide some background on the study of AAE, which is sometimes referred to as African American Language, African American Vernacular English, and Black English Vernacular. It is spoken primarily by descendants of slaves of African descent who were in bondage in the United States. It is often labeled as “broken” English, though the authors note that AAE is “highly systematic and rule-governed” and is a distinct dialect, much like Scottish English.

Professor Arthur Spears, a linguist not involved with the study, has linked the stigma and delegitimization of the language “to its connection to African Americans, and to blackness in general.” It is the likely outcome of this stigma on court transcription that the authors sought to quantitatively measure. 

Nine native AAE speakers were recruited from West Philadelphia, North Philadelphia, Jersey City, and Harlem, and the researchers made recordings of various phrases in an otherwise quiet room (unlike a noisy courtroom). Twenty­-seven court reporters volunteered for the study, and these included both black (approximately 25 percent) and nonblack participants also from the Philadelphia area. 

While court reporters must pass a proficiency test certifying 95 percent accuracy or better on Standard American English plus specific legal and medical jargon, the participants didn’t do nearly as well with AAE. The best performed at 91.2 percent, the worst at 58.4 percent, with an average of 82.9 percent. However, word accuracy is only the beginning. When asked to paraphrase the utterances, the average comprehension rate was a mere 33 percent. According to the study, “The court reporters’ transcriptions altered the who, what, when, where, and force of an utterance in 701 of the 2,241 transcriptions, fully 31%.” The phrase “he don’t be in that neighborhood,” which should be translated as “He isn’t usually in that neighborhood,” became “We are going to be in this neighborhood” after transcription.” With regards to the accuracy between black and nonblack reporters, the authors concluded the following: “… neither group seemed to understand the majority of what they were hearing or to have the ability to communicate the meaning of the utterances clearly, but nonblack court reporters were significantly worse at this task.”

The authors suggest possible reasons for the lack of accuracy in AAE transcriptions. They mention a workplace culture where court reporters often are admonished for asking to have a phrase repeated or clarified. Stigma around AAE, however, seems to be the most prevalent cause. One court reporter stated “that they do not understand the dialect they are asked to transcribe on a daily basis, while framing it as a deficiency on the part of the speaker” (paraphrasing by study authors). 

While the stigma attached to AAE was an obvious factor, all of the reporters expressed a sincere desire to improve their ability to transcribe AAE, with the worst performing reporters saying they were willing to do “anything to help the profession.”

Forty-four percent of the population of the city of Philadelphia is black, and they are disproportionately likely to come into contact with the justice system. When court reporters are unable to accurately record spoken phrases because of linguistic variations, they are simply “incapable of performing their basic job duties.”

According to study co-author and NYU grad student Kalbfeld, “Once something is in the court record via the transcript, it legally becomes what was said even if it is inaccurate, which brings up questions of due process and equal protection under the law if some people are less likely to be accurately transcribed than others.” 

The authors propose the narrow solution of requiring “all court reporters to be certified not just on ‘standard’ English, but on other dialects also, especially those they are most likely to encounter.”

Spears remarks, “The injustice involved in court reporting is intolerable and an insult to the legal notion of all citizens’ receiving equal treatment under the law.” The authors note that “this is the result of a long historical process that will take enormous effort and goodwill to undo.” 

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Sources: vice.com, Linguistic Society of America

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