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Capturing every word

Life-changing revelations can happen in the strangest places.

For Jessica Sheldon, it was traffic court. She was tagging along with a friend who had to deal with a speeding ticket when she saw a court reporter in action and got inspired.

“She’s typing everything everyone’s saying!” Sheldon said. “I thought that was so cool.”

After completing the required training, Sheldon began freelancing as a court reporter in New York State, where she worked for five years before moving to North Carolina. That was two years ago.

Today, Sheldon can bang out 200 words per minute for five minutes straight and with an accuracy rate of 96 percent or better, which includes punctuation, speaker changes and spelling.

She recently became a certified realtime reporter, which means she can play the steno machine like Chopin.

“Ms. Sheldon is a champion,” trial court administrator Charleston Carter of Mecklenburg County announced in a news release for Court Reporting and Captioning Week, which began on Feb. 10.

Sheldon is among the state’s 105 official court reporters. Most of them use steno machines, but there are a few “mask writers” who repeat courtroom dialogue into stenomasks. A software program translates their words and special abbreviations into text. One mask writer in Charlotte uses the names of characters from the “Game of Thrones” as shorthand for other words and phrases, Sheldon said.  

She’s not worried about being replaced by an electronic recording device, because there’s no substitute for the real thing. A recording machine might malfunction or have poor audio quality. Someone might forget to press the record button. Or an attorney might neglect to turn on her mic.

None of that happens when a court reporter is in the house. They speak up when someone’s mumbling or people are talking over one another.

Reporters also have a big advantage over recording devices because they can provide real time transcripts to lawyers and judges.

Sheldon said she’s spent about $15,000 on her reporting equipment, which includes her $5,000 steno machine, computer software and iPads that she hands out to attorneys and judges so they can read her transcripts in real time.

“It’s worth it,” she said. “This is the best job.”

What really concerns Sheldon is the fact that most court reporters are significantly older than she. Their average age is 51, she said. And when they retire she fears that there won’t be enough new reporters to fill the vacancies.  

“I want to get into the high schools and let people know that this is a good profession that you can get into,” Sheldon said.

She’s the ideal ambassador for the profession. And if she represents the future of court reporting, the industry is going to be just fine.

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