Happy Sunday everyone, it’s game day — sort of. The Eagles won’t be taking the field, but a few players from the Birds' roster will be playing in Florida for today’s Pro Bowl. While you wait for kickoff, don’t miss our conversation with modern life reporter Cassie Owens. She walks us through new research on how often court reporters fail to accurately transcribe black dialect and how those mistakes affect the public’s trust in our justice system.
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Each week we go behind the scenes with one of our reporters or editors to discuss their work and the challenges they face along the way. This week we chat with modern life reporter Cassie Owens, who pored over a forthcoming study which evaluated how well Philadelphia court reporters transcribe dialect. When it comes to transcribing black dialect specifically, the study shows that court reporters aren’t faring very well.
What brought the issue of inaccurate court reporting of black dialect in Philadelphia courtrooms to your attention?
I write about language from time to time. A linguist tipped me that he was working on a study on court reporters. The research was so juicy. He didn’t have to tell me twice.
Were you surprised by the degree to which the study found mistakes in how black people’s words were being interpreted in Philly courts?
Yes and no. I identify as a speaker of both mainstream American English and African American English, and use both while working. I know that feeling that something’s getting lost in translation, even between two Englishes. I also follow issues in digital culture, so I was aware that social media users were identifying racial impersonators through taking note of grammatical mistakes in African American English.
It hadn’t occurred to me, however, to consider how misinterpretation may happen in a legal context and what that might mean for our court records.
What are some of the implications of the findings that people should be aware of?
The legal experts who we spoke to were all concerned about the accuracy of court records more broadly: If it’s not accurate, that can raise questions of mistrust towards the justice system and its proceedings.
There’s also concerns around how errors may persist through the progression of a case. Court reporters take down preliminary hearings too in Philly. Attorneys turn to those transcripts as a reference while preparing for trial, plus they can quote transcripts during trial, in some cases.
And legal experts considered this an issue that impairs equal access to justice. If that’s the case, we currently have no mechanism to address this. While witnesses who speak foreign languages may get translators in court, people who testify in African American English do not.
What are some steps that can be taken to reduce the levels of reporting inaccuracies? Is anyone doing anything about this?
There are some people arguing in favor of translators after learning the study’s findings. The study’s researchers have strong objections to involving translators and would prefer that African American English be added to the court reporter certification requirements.
Court reporters participating in the study expressed desires to sharpen their language skills, and that’s the reaction that we’re seeing so far among lawyers and judges, too. We’ll have to see how calls for more training manifest.
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It’s outrageous something like this, can ever happen in a City of the First Class like Philadelphia. It’s the City’s responsibility to prevent a house from being stolen. To also read where the individual stealing the properties is doing it from behind prison walls again should fall under the city’s responsibilities for not preventing such an event from occurring. Since the city opens electronic transferring of deeds and paperwork surrounding a transferring of the property there’s no doubt that there are probably hundreds if not thousands of other properties stolen over the course of a year. The vetting process for an electronic transferring of a deed should be ten times the normal vetting process. The identity of walk in’s doing transfers down at City Hall should be increased, more than just signing in at an unattended sign-in book, and then the checking of a photo ID at the teller window and taking a photograph of the process. Fake ID’s are a dime a dozen these days and with tellers that do not know the difference. Total incompetence by city management and their subordinates. — Foxchase, on thieves and forgers stealing homes from deceased owners in Philly’s “hot” neighborhoods.