To Caption or Not to Caption: That Is the Question
By Kimberly Potts
Lately, my mornings have started out a little different from mornings past. Take this morning, for example. The first of two alarms I've set for myself peals frantically. In zombie-like fashion, I automatically roll over, disable them both, peck my sleeping hubby on the forehead and trudge into the kitchen for the morning's first cup of coffee.
I'm off to work. Seriously. Wish you were here to see me. Not! My hair is tousled, in complete disarray. I've decided not to brush my teeth quite yet. And yes, I'm still in my robe and ridiculously frivolous house shoes. Don't ask. It's 4 a.m.
On my way to the office (my spare bedroom), I'm wondering, "What in the world is going to happen today?" I flick on the radio oldies station for some pep. Ironically, Paul McCartney is crooning "Just another day ... ."
I log on to the Internet and start hitting all of my habitual sites: CNN, Washington Post, Associated Press, etc.
You may be wondering, "Is she an incurable insomniac, a fanatical morning freak, jet-lagged or simply non compos mentis?" Nope. Well, at least not all of the time. I am covering my morning assignment, captioning KPRC Channel 2, a local affiliate in Houston.
Not only am I a captioner, but I am a brand-spanking-new captioner. I hadn't necessarily planned on becoming one, hadn't necessarily thought myself capable of being one either, but by a strange turn of events, my husband's job transfer and a chance Internet Web site encounter, here I sit, in my robe, wild hair, teeth not ... you get the picture.
Truth be known, I am wildly happy. Blessed, you could say. Not that this job is a piece of cake, you understand. In fact, this is one of the greatest challenges I've ever undertaken.
It is of the utmost importance that I stay current with local, national and world events so I can place these outlines into my captioning dictionary. Today's tapestry of events is woven with raging snowstorms slamming the northern region of our country, Golden Globe Award chatter, Superbowl XXXIV hype, roving presidential delegates, the sad saga in Grozny and the unending tug-of-war with little Elian Gonzalez. Of course, there is the all-important buzz on the beautiful people too - Lucy Lui, Matt LeBlanc, Cameron Diaz, Arnold Schwarzenneger, Robert DeNiro, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Wrapping up preparation for my broadcast, I go to the Web site supporting the station I'm captioning, KPRC. It is a fantastic site, the one I concentrate most intently on for obvious reasons.
Unless there is lengthy breaking news, all of the stories on KPRC's Web site will be covered later in the broadcast. Those stories include world and national events, such as the stories I've mentioned above.
Closer to home, speculation abounds about Houston's new and unnamed football franchise, city hall happenings, run-ins with the Houston Police, H.I.S.D. incidents and arson investigations. I can also count on the predictable updates of weather and traffic every 10 minutes.
Saving the best for last, literally, I must prepare for a segment with "Mr. Food." During my training phase for the captioning endeavor, I was surprised to learn that such words as broccoli, artichoke, cumin, cayenne and tangerine weren't in my dictionary. Even something as silly as chili (love those rhymes) can be accidentally stroked chilly or Chile. Amazingly, those three words, and myriad other homonyms, may come up in the same broadcast day. I need to be prepared to stroke them correctly.
I'm learning little tricks, like recognizing rapid-fire patterns for phrases such as "Live in the News Center," "a check on your local weather and traffic every 10 minutes on the 2's," "mass graves in Ciudad-Juarez," "nightclub shooting" and "school bus crash." I think I had to put firefighter in my dictionary 15 different ways until I finally woke up and created an ingenious brief for it: FAOEURBT. And let's not forget the trendy new millennium terms and the many creative derivatives of those words that come up so often.
It is now 4:30 a.m. Channel 2, beam me up! Actually, it's not quite that mysterious and complicated. Using my captioning software, I dial into the station on a modem line, connect to the encoder, and I'm set.
I dedicate the next 30 minutes to warmup and wake-up of these tired fingers. It's relatively simple to find an early morning news broadcast to warm up with.
OK. I'm getting close ... 10 more minutes ... five more minutes ... going to a commercial break ... Wham! The best description I have to date is like being hurled from a cannon: "Live in the News Center, these are some of the stories we are working on for you." I'm out of the starting gate at a pace so blistering that CNN and MSNBC feel like a breath of fresh air. My heart is hammering, my hands are sweating profusely, and I feel a bit "otherworldly." An absolute out-of-body experience. I live for the commercial breaks. It's my chance to sit back, breath into my brown paper bag and scan my file for goofs. By the grace of God, it looks respectable. That is my saving grace.
My morning continues as such until 7 a.m. My nerves finally calm about 10 minutes into the broadcast. I am on an even keel until a segment covering a local convenience store robbery and shooting. Two mothers of very young children, one the clerk, the other a patron shopping for a gallon of milk for her baby, have been murdered. The screen pans in on a sobbing father holding an infant. His grief-stricken 10-year-old little girl is sobbing, holding her sobbing father and stroking his hair. Although her little voice breaks, I am able read her lips: "I want my mommy." Time has stood still for me.
During the remainder of the broadcast, I have absolutely no idea what they are saying. Miraculously, I'm on autopilot, hypersensitive, taking it down word for word. I am sobbing. My eyes are blurry and burning with tears. My hands are shaking again. It amazes me how elusive and intangible stories can sometimes be in print. Stories like these reinforce in me the significance our media has in society, displaying powerful visual images and messages, both informative and entertaining.
All right. Time for a quick reality check. I would like for those of you reading this article to turn on your 10 p.m. news tonight and mute the volume on your sets. Try very hard to associate these powerful images with words. Now imagine for a moment that disabling the mute function or turning up the volume on your set is not an option to you. Now imagine if there were no captions to reinforce these powerful images. I feel blessed, humbled and in absolute awe of the responsibility God has placed, quite literally, in my hands.
About the Author
Kimberly Potts, RPR, CRR, is from Cypress, Texas.