From ReporterCentral, July 2000
When captioning our local news, I had the unfortunate duty of having to caption a story about an acquaintance accused of multiple murder. This man was not a close friend, but someone I knew casually. He was a big supporter of our local 4-H kids at their annual animal auction as part of our county fair, and a good friend of one of my neighbors.
I had approximately ten minutes before air time to get mentally prepared. I saw the mention of him in the script I downloaded from the station, but ended up having to write the entire story realtime. I had a very difficult time writing cleanly, and found it almost impossible to concentrate on writing, having to digest the fact that someone I knew was capable of committing such a heinous crime, and destroying three families. I was literally shaking by the end of the story. But I managed to get through it. Then the next newscast, I had to do it all over again. This went on for several days, with more coverage of the tragedy.
This wasn’t the first time this had happened to me, unfortunately, although it was certainly the most tragic. Once while also captioning the local news, they were talking about an attorney that was holed up in his office, threatening suicide. His name sounded vaguely familiar, but not someone I remembered specifically. Then they started to interview his best friend, who was an attorney that I knew extremely well from my deposition days.
On another occasion, there was a large apartment fire in the town where I lived. When captioning the news coverage, they started interviewing a woman who had been burned out of her home, and I realized it was my housekeeper! It was all I could do, again, to maintain my concentration until the end of the broadcast, when I could call her beeper to see how she and her family were, and offer whatever help I could. She asked how I had found out about her so quickly, and I told her I had been captioning her on the news.
Captioning national news, sports, etc. you (hopefully) never have to caption a tragedy involving someone you know. But in captioning local news, it is something I had never thought about until it happened to me the first time. And you can’t ask to have someone else cover for you, like you could possibly do in court or in a deposition. These things tend to happen in the moment.
I found the only way to get through it was to do what I do when captioning major emergencies — concentrate on each word itself, and try not to string them together into coherent sentences. This is, obviously, contrary to all of our training as court reporters. The only way we are able to write so quickly is to anticipate what’s coming next, to get ready for the next word. When you try not to pay attention to the context, it makes it very difficult to keep up.
Professional detachment is an important tool for court reporters, and helps captioners to deal with tragedy, when we have to realtime stories of deaths and other catastrophes. When the story is about someone we know, professional detachment isn’t just important — it’s essential.