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Chapter 1: History of Scoping

The scopist is a relatively new profession, one that came about as a direct result of the introduction of computers to the court reporting profession. Prior to computers, court reporters would write their machine shorthand, or stenographic notes ("steno"), on machines which would record their input on narrow strips of paper. Court reporters would then either type up their notes manually or hire people called notereaders to do this task. Oftentimes, making corrections and maintaining consistency in transcripts was a seemingly impossible task. Each page of the original transcript was generated on a typewriter, and serious corrections found in proofreading could require that several pages would need to be redone in order to maintain page formats and numbering. In worst-case scenarios, a reporter might have to attach a "B" page to a transcript. Then computers became economical enough for small business.

The introduction of computers revolutionized the way court reporters functioned. With the advent of electronic data storage, the first computerized shorthand machines stored their steno notes on magnetic media as well as on paper. This allowed the steno machine to interface with a computer. Having a computer's processing ability available created a new kind of transcription, referred to as computer-aided transcription, or CAT (pronounced "cat"), for short. Inside a computer, a court reporter could store their own personal electronic dictionary, which would convert -- or "translate" -- their steno notes into English.

Because of the nature of stenography, which is in essence a mechanical form of shorthand, each court reporter would have their own personalized, customized computer main digital dictionary file from which to translate their notes. Also, using multiple dictionaries in a series allows court reporters to maintain generic dictionaries to be used in conjunction with their main dictionary. For example, it is common to have a medical dictionary, sometimes a legal dictionary, and oftentimes industry-specific dictionaries (e.g., oil & gas). Furthermore, since court reporters take ongoing testimony in cases (e.g., case of Smith v. Jones), they can creatte case-specific dictionaries.  And each witness or hearing inside a case will also have a specific dictionary associated with it for names and terminology specific to that session of court reporting.

All this technology streamlined the transcription side of court reporting because you could edit your jobs electronically before final printing, as compared to using typewriters in the past. Furthermore, once you created an English translation for a set of steno notes while editing a transcript, the computer produces that word in the rest of your transcript, eliminating the need to ever type that word again when encountering that steno. Once placed into the reporter's dictionary, the computer will automatically produce the English translation for that steno in all future transcripts whenever it's encountered.

However, this also meant that the computerized dictionaries became of critical importance, and this required a different skill set than notereaders possessed.

Typing speed became less critical, while computer use and dictionary maintenance became an inherent part of the transcription process for court reporters. All this innovation necessitated the creation of a new support professional, called the legal scopist (often just "scopist").

Why "scopist"? In the earliest stages of computer-aided transcription, all processing occurred on minicomputers. Although economical enough for businesses, these computers often cost as much as an average house and had very expensive maintenance contracts, so they weren't generally owned by individual court reporters. Rather, reporters would own their dictionaries and magnetic media but use the computers and computer room provided by the court reporting agency or courthouse that they worked for. These minicomputers were the size of an executive desk, and they had large drives that would clunk and jiggle and vibrate the entire machine as it processed steno notes into English -- which made for quite a formidable impression of power, in those days! These minicomputers had harsh green phosphor screens that displayed only six or eight lines of text at a time, so they were elongated rectangles which resembled an oscilloscope, so the screen became referred to as a "scope." Scopists were people who worked at the scope.

The scopist's job has evolved in the past decade. Originally, most scopists in the early days did nothing but edit raw steno out of rough translations, and the old minicomputer CAT systems would keep an accounting of keystrokes and edits.  Scopists then were paid by the edit or keystroke. Today, most scopists are tasked with producing as clean a draft as possible from the rough translation, while simultaneously creating entries to be reviewed for use in dictionary maintenance.  Furthermore, with the addition of new litigation support features, scopists and court reporters alike have additional tasks to perform, such as keyword indexing and creation of ASCII, PDF and special legal-format digital transcript copies, etc.

As court reporting continues to embrace new technologies, the scopist's job is certain to evolve. No one can tell where the scopist's profession will head in the future, but it's easily one of the most technologically involved, and technologically dependent, professions in the legal process. There is work being performed, much of it by Fortune 500 companies, toward the development of automated transcription systems for the courtroom environment. Automatic dictation software is seemingly the bane of court reporters.

Of course, looking at the courtroom environment and the inherent problems faced by computers and software in that environment, it's obvious that even the best automatic systems will need human intervention; an operator, so to speak. Even should this unlikely event unfold, the scopist is uniquely positioned to make the transition into this technical new field -- they'd just be scoping for a computer instead of a court reporter. This is being proven out, with digital recordings in courtrooms being used in lieu of court reporters. Scopists are being hired to produce voice transcription services, producing correct transcripts without the need for stenographic support or knowledge even today. 


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