To Record or not to Record: Transcripts are for court stenographers

Transcribing recorded interviews is far and away my least favorite part of being a freelance reporter. In fact, I rarely record interviews unless my editor requests it, and it’s not just because I’m only a fair typist on my fastest day. Here are five reasons I rely on old-fashioned pen and paper for most interviews, whether I do them in person, over the phone or via Skype:

  • I can start the editing process immediately. I only record meaty quotes word for word, spending the rest of the time summarizing and noting other details that might be helpful when I’m writing.
  • It’s less intimidating to the source. When you let someone know you are recording them, they sometimes obsess over every single word and phrase. That rarely results in a string of colorful quotes or engaging anecdotes.
  • Recording makes me a lazy writer. I’ve found if I’ve taken the time to transcribe a ton of quotes, I’ll use them, even when putting some things in my own words will make for a better story or a more compelling read.
  • Reporters are overly paranoid about  misrepresenting people. A study by a University of Arizona linguistics professor showed only 13 of 98 quotations taken from Arizona newspapers proved verbatim when compared with recordings, but only two proved to be incompatible with the meaning of the original statement. When in doubt, I read quotes back to sources or simply ask themselves. Trust me, they don’t mind.
  • Technology stinks. Free programs to record Skype calls don’t activate automatically. New apps that are supposed to capture both sides of a cell phone conversation result in recordings that sound as though they were made in a concrete mixer. Batteries fail. You name it, I’ve experienced it.

Don’t get me wrong, taping has its time and place. I know plenty of reporters who record every interview. And I tape most personality profile interviews so I can spend more time jotting down details about a subject’s environment and mannerisms and hear their tone and speech patterns again and again during the writing process. I also tape interviews I think I might use some time in the far-flung future. But, for the most part, I save the transcription work for court reporters and spend my time perfecting my personalized brand of shorthand.

What about you? Do you rely on recordings or stick to pen and paper?

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13 thoughts on “To Record or not to Record: Transcripts are for court stenographers

  1. I have interviewed several veterans for the local newspaper and I record everyone of them except the first one. I tried to take notes but in the end I ended up missing so much. Now I let them know I am recorded, I assure them anything they don’t want me to write about will be off the record and put it somewhere to the side out of our direct line of sight. Then I just have a conversation with them, when we come across something I know is difficult for them I ask them if that want it off the record. A couple of times during a interview I was told something and I knew I couldn’t write about it. I told the person that everything he said was off the record. He thanked me later.

    Transcribing it later is so painful though. I find that I spend almost 4 hours transcribing for every hour spent interviewing. After it is totally finished, I usually use a couple of quotes, enough to keep the reader sure that the words are coming from the veteran and not me because my interviews are written in a story form and not as a news article. But the good news is that after an average of 12 hours working on a interview, I get a 50 dollar check when it is published. It is a good trade.

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