There aren’t many topics within journalism that divide opinion like shorthand. Some think it’s valuable, others a waste of time. UK journo degrees place a lot of emphasis on it; those in the US don’t really teach it at all.
We could debate till the cows come home about whether or not it’s a useful skill in the context of 21st century journalism. Yes, journalism on a wider scale does not rely on it every day but covering courts and councils is still important locally. Both sides have very strong arguments.
What is perhaps more pertinent is whether we should be spending as much time on learning shorthand as journalism courses currently demand? At City, we spend six hours a week in the class (and countless others practising outlines and speed tests) whilst short courses like the News Associates NCTJ course at Wimbledon spend between 3-4 hours a day on it. Even if shorthand is worthwhile skill, is it so necessary that we spend half of our working hours poring over a textbook, trying to learn little squiggles?… Again debatable.
What is beyond debate though is the following two stories I was told recently, which go some way to underline the importance of shorthand.
Firstly, you may remember the Daily Telegraph recently had to pay out libel damages to Christiano Ronaldo. For those that don’t, the newspaper claimed that the football star had suggested he put an injured ankle at risk by ‘living it up’ at a Hollywood nightclub while a Manchester United player, something he obviously denies.
When the case went to court, guess what, the journalist’s shorthand notes were called for as evidence (a journalist is required by law to keep their notes for three years and are encouraged to keep them for longer – you never know when someone will challenge your quotes).
The court sent the shorthand notes for close inspection and, after a shorthand tutor at City tried to decipher them without much success, it was deemed that the journalist’s poorly formed shorthand outlines were not substantial enough evidence to justify the story. And that was partly how the Real Madrid player was able to secure an apology and substantial damages from the Telegraph, all because a journalist’s shorthand was not good enough.
Not only that but during a recent interview exercise with politician Meg Hillier, the MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch admitted that she was sceptical of journalists who asked her questions too quickly as it led her to question how accurately they were being noted down, even in shorthand.
Being a former student on the Newspaper MA at City, Hillier knows all about the battle to reach 100wpm and it was interesting to hear how she, as someone regularly interviewed by journalists, was conscious of shorthand speed when giving answers. Hillier even suggested that, in a situation where she thought questions were being asked too quickly to be taken down properly in shorthand, she often held back for fear of being misquoted. So, shoddy shorthand can make your interviewee clam up and prevent you getting the story.
Effectively a journalist’s nightmare.
Somebody on a BBC Today article I read likened shorthand to golf and I couldn’t agree more: it can be very frustrating, some people seem to have a natural knack for it and it requires regular practice if you want to be good at it.
But these two practical examples of how poor shorthand can affect your whole journalism career should make you take shorthand seriously from now on.
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After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look