The Sense and Dollars of Captioning: What it Takes to Be a Successful Captioner

By Peggy Belflower, RMR

One veteran captioner offers her thoughts
on how to prepare for a career in captioning.

Today, court reporting students and court reporters alike consider captioning as a career, but a dozen years ago, it was not so. There were fewer than 100 court-reporters-cum-captioners in the nation when I made my fateful and rewarding leap into the dedicated group of court reporters who were starting to call themselves captioners. The Americans with Disabilities and the Telecommunications Acts had not been implemented, and job security was not yet proven, as it was in the time-tested area of court reporting. Nearly all seasoned court reporters were skeptical of the future of captioning, and court reporting students did not go straight from school into captioning.

I had to beg, plead and bargain in order to get just one Orlando-area court reporter to become my partner in captioning news broadcasts for Central Florida's NBC affiliate, WESH-TV, which was the first TV station in Florida to caption local news.

Breaking In

In the last month of my presidency of the Florida Court Reporters Association, I received a call from the program director at WESH. An associate of hers at the station, whose wife is a court reporter who knew about captioning but had no interest in doing it, had come to her with the idea to caption the station's local news broadcasts. It was a novel idea to the program director, and she followed through by contacting Atlanta's premier captioner, Judy Brentano, who put the two of us in contact.

I had taken time away from court reporting while doing the business of FCRA and was ripe for taking a new direction when I got the call. There being no captioners in the state to refer the station, and with Judy's heartfelt encouragement, I had the answer for the local station. I was going to be its captioner.

There was no structured training in those pioneer days of captioning, but the stalwarts of captioning gave support and shared experiences and ideas. Beyond that, it was mostly seat-of-the-pants learning for court reporters who wanted to do TV captioning but had not been taught conflict-free writing in school.

Getting Started

What made sense in those early days of captioning, though, makes sense today. There can be no conflicts in a captioner's personal dictionary. Two months before going on the air for the first time, I purged 27,000 conflicts from my personal dictionary, ending up with a very basic 25,000-entry dictionary. You cannot effectively caption with the equivalent of a starter dictionary. CART and realtime reporters must have sizeable dictionaries, and so must captioners.

The way to build your dictionary for captioning is to write practice sessions of TV programs, and from those to add entries into your personal dictionary. Read what you wrote during the practice session. If you had not heard what was said, would you have been able to read it from your captions? It is important to remember that at least eight percent of the U.S. population only "hears" what the captioner writes.

All English language is not the same. Television language is distinct from courthouse language, which is distinct from what is heard at conventions. If you choose the specialty of TV captioning, do not watch television. Write television, particularly news and current-events broadcasts and sporting events. Get comfortable with the unique "television" language, and edit your writing, adding entries into your dictionary each time that you practice.

Don't be concerned with dictionary overload. Having 100,000 entries in your dictionary is a comfortable place for a captioner to be. There is great satisfaction to hear a proper name and to write it with confidence, instead of haltingly hand-spelling the word each time it is spoken during the show. What a captioner cannot do is let captions go out untranslated and unreadable or misread by the public.

To prepare for our first broadcast, Bill Howell, my daring compeer, and I worked five days per week for two months, writing taped and live newscasts for six hours a day. In our practice, we learned how to write conflict free by watching as we wrote and making changes that made sense and were easy to memorize. We also edited the practice broadcasts after each half-hour session to add entries to our dictionaries. My resulting 50,000-entry dictionary was barely sufficient the first day on air.

With Bill, the station management and its chief engineer watching over my shoulder, all of us crowded into the tiny blackroom editing closet, which had become the captioning studio in an overcrowded building. I captioned my first news broadcast. It felt like I was holding my breath between commercials. My heart and ears were pounding. But the adrenaline rush got me through it.

Twelve years later - and after many hours spent building my 125,000-entry dictionary - I am comfortable with it. My former captioning partner has more than 200,000 entries in his dictionary. As do all dedicated captioners, we continue to add entries to our dictionaries when scripts or other information is available to us prior to a show and by editing and adding entries after the show in order to keep our personal dictionaries current.

In addition to confidence with your personal dictionary, a captioner must maintain accuracy at high speeds. It is not a given on all captioning work, but most live news programming is done at breakneck speed in order to provide as much information as possible in the limited amount of time available.

The Capitol Update show, which I caption, condenses Florida's daily legislative activities to a half-hour wrap-up; the anchors and reporters speak at over 210 words per minute. It is hands-on captioning of a PBS show, with no commercials and no scripts. The show is high in syllabic content, with legislators pontificating and debating, and they do not spend their floor time using one-and-two-syllable words! To top it off, I e-mail the captions to the show's producer following each show, which alone is motivation to not let my concentration wane during the half-hour.

Dedicated captioners love the work. It is exciting and fast-paced, without the pomp and circumstance of court procedures. I am fortunate to have had years of both official and freelance reporting, which prepared me and my personal dictionary for my favorite job. For example, I caption gavel-to-gavel live coverage of all Florida Supreme Court proceedings. It is the international model which states and countries are studying to ready themselves to bring their courts to the people. The proceedings are shown on television and via streaming video, including captions, on the Internet. Captioning the work of such an esteemed panel of jurists helps me to caption my best.

Striving for perfection is done on a personal self-challenge basis. A fair goal is to write at 99.95 percent or greater accuracy. When you achieve it, then you win! Success! You have gained the prize of self-satisfaction. The key is to strive for perfect writing and to barely be satisfied with anything less. If there is greater than one-tenth of one percent inaccuracy in a given captioning session, that should be unacceptable to you if you're a captioner who takes pride in your work. If you are not regularly achieving that near-perfect result, then practice, edit and improve your writing.

Recognizing Captioning's Importance

Hundreds of thousands of people are reading captions on any given program, and they trust that the work represents exactly what is being said. The deaf and hard-of-hearing communities depend upon the captioner to be its link to the news and world of television, without a slew of mistakes or untranslated words that have no bearing upon the story.

When hands are raised to the keyboard, life's troubles and worries need to rest elsewhere. The mind should be clear, so as to provide accurately the words spoken on television to those people who depend upon us. And keep in mind that it is not only people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing who read the captions. Imagine that you are captioning, and your relatives, friends and fellow captioners and court reporters are reading your work product. They do. You don't want to embarrass yourself by writing mistakes!

Consider that at each department store, which has a wall of televisions, captions are displayed on every set. If your writing is lax, then your work product gives a confusing message to observers.

An acquaintance recently told me that she was at a restaurant where her local news was on the televisions over the center bar. While waiting to be called to her table, she read the captions since the sound was turned off. The captioner's work was replete with inaccuracies to the extent that the news stories became skewed. My friend chuckled over the inaccuracies, which brought the attention of other customers, who hooted over the captioner's "interpretation" of the news. Do not let that captioner be you!

The how-to of captioning is now available, but getting this valuable training from a captioning company usually carries with it the promise, by the captioner, to work for that company following training. For the mutual benefit of both parties, the captioner must be dependable and loyal to that company, which has trained the captioner for a satisfying and lucrative career.

If you are under contract or are considering signing a contract to work for a captioning company, then be ready to live up to it. The employer is planning to fulfill the terms and length of the contract, and it expects that the captioner will do that, too. Read the contract carefully before you sign it, and if there is anything that you cannot agree to do, then tell the prospective employer before you sign the agreement. If you have concerns about the contract, consider getting advice from an attorney before signing it.

My experiences have been that captioning companies strive to be fair to and are appreciative of the captioner and the unique ability it takes to do what is understood to be a challenging job. Captioning, like court reporting, carries with it a great deal of responsibility. You need to be prepared and ready to work every time you are scheduled, with no last-minute call for a substitute. There may be no substitute available and, true to show business policy, the captions must go on.

More to Consider

To move on to the "dollars" of captioning, if you are curious as to what a captioner can earn, the answer is that it is up to the captioner. There is more captioning to be done than there are captioners. A captioner can earn $40,000 or more per year, plus the benefits of vacation and sick leave, health insurance, contributions to employment taxes and even retirement plans with some captioning companies. A captioner can possibly add to that income by working overtime for the company.

With experience and excellence in captioning, a freelance captioner can earn $10,000 per month with no added benefits. Earnings achievements are not unlike any other professional's. Your earnings are usually commensurate to the effort, sweat, stress and the quality and quantity of work dedicated to the job.

If what you want in life includes giving of yourself to others, and if you have court reporting - especially realtime or CART - experience, then you are a candidate for captioning. If you are a student who is contemplating captioning; if you want to help others by striving for perfection in your upcoming career; and if you find a captioning company or captioner who will teach you, once you have graduated from court reporting school, then you are a candidate to become a captioner.

The deaf and hard-of-hearing communities will depend upon your work product for access to local and world news and events which affect them, including crises such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires. When evacuations are necessary, it is to the captioner that they turn to be informed.

Sporting events are intended to be heard as well as seen. The captioner provides the excitement and urgency of the sportscasters. Imagine watching a football game with no sound! Without commentators, televised sports events are boring at best.

Or the Oscars! In 1982, the Academy Awards presentations were first captioned by the legendary Marty Block, and the televised world of entertainment was opened for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. What fun, to be able to follow the awards show and all of its excitement!

The hearing segment of our population can take for granted the ability to watch television. Thanks to dedicated captioners, the deaf and hard-of-hearing segment of our population can do that, too. When you lift your hands to the keys, be certain that you write your best, without distraction or deference to anything but your work. As a captioner, your monetary reward will possibly equal your pride in helping others, and your workdays will end with a smile of satisfaction.

This article was originally published in the March 2002 JCR.


About the Author

Peggy Belflower, RMR, is from Altamonte Springs, Fla. She is a recipient of FCRA's Emily Mann Distinguished Service Award and is a Fellow of the Academy of Professional Reporters. She is also a virtual mentor.