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The ears of the courtroom

PRINCETON – Gov. Pat Quinn recently proclaimed Feb. 17-23 as National Court Reporting and Captioning Week.

The recognition pulls together a nationwide effort to highlight contributions of stenographic court reporters and captioners.

Denise Johnson of Princeton is one of Bureau County Courthouse’s official court reporters. Throughout her 30 years in the career, she has seen many changes in the field. The most obvious, of course, is the advancement in technology.

Her involvement in the career began when she was in high school and worked as a part-time legal secretary for a lawyer in Princeton.

“One day, he brought me over to the courthouse when a trial was going on. He wanted me to sit in there and just watch the court reporter,” she said.

Although Johnson’s heart was set on going to school to become a full-time legal secretary, she later found herself in the secretarial program at Southern Illinois University and becoming more interested in court reporting.

“I used to just sit and watch the girls practicing on their machines ... It was just intriguing to me,” she said.

She switched her full attention to the stenograph machine and finished her degree.   “Court reporting has been a really good fit for me,” she said. “It incorporates everything I’m good at.”

Johnson said the most important skills to know for the job is spelling, typing, proofreading and knowing the difference between homonyms.

Of course, knowing the shorthand machine and the language it produces is the heart of the job.

“Once you learn the language, you have to do it really fast and really accurate because you only get one chance when your sitting in the courtroom. It’s very fun to me. It’s very challenging,” she said.

At times, the job can get intense when people in the courtroom mumble, speak quietly or talk over each other.

“My job is made much easier with clear or slow talking,” Johnson chuckled. Stenographic skills translates to a multitude of career options-including court reporting, live-event captioning for the deaf and captioning for broadcast and specialized videography.

A common question most people ask about the career is whether or not it will be replaced with future technology.

Johnson said she isn’t afraid.

“For one, conversations can be so fast in the courtroom. You also can have multiple speakers at one. There’s no technology out there that can distinguish who is talking,” she said.

Johnson said in the ‘90s, the government tried to replace court reporters with technology, and in turn created a self-inflicted issue, which produced a large shortage of court reporters.

“They tried to replace us with machines and put a hiring freeze on court reporters,” she said. “But the reality is, you need a court reporter to run the technology and transcribe transcripts.”

The hiring freeze created a decrease in the number of attendees in the required programs needed to receive a court reporting license, which resulted in the programs being dropped, according to Johnson.

“There were about 400 court reporter schools (in the state) when I was going to school; now it’s dropped to more like 100 schools today,” she said.

A future issue hanging in the balance, Johnson said, is of the 600 official court reporters in the state, the average age is about 52.

“The statistic is ... in about the next 10 years, 75 percent of the work force is retiring,” she said. “In 10 more years, the shortage is going to really be bad.”

Johnson is a strong advocate for the court reporting career.

“I tell people, this is one career path these days that, if you started and finished and got licensed, there is 100 percent job placement,” she said.

To Johnson, the career is here to stay forever.

“You will never not have court transcripts. They are always, always going to be needed,” she said.   

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