Today I participated (remotely) in a very interesting session on Sociolinguistic and sociotechnical approaches to official transcripts at the 16th Conference of the International Pragmatics Association, in Hong Kong.
As usual, all the linguists were in strong agreement that transcription, technically called entextualisation, is a complex, context-dependent process, far from the simple secretarial skill of ‘writing down what is there to be heard’ assumed by the law. They were also shocked to discover that the law deems police to be ‘ad hoc experts’ on the grounds that they have listened to a recording ‘many times’ – and quite unsurprised to discover that this concept creates actual and potential injustice.
The session was organised by Eero Voutilainen of Helsinki University and Miyako Inoue of Stanford University, who both gave presentations. Another presentation was given by Dongchen Hou, University of British Columbia – and the discussant was Joseph Sung-Yul Park, National University of Singapore.
All the presentations were excellent, and though they were on very different topics, there were some notable commonalities of theme, deftly drawn out in Joseph Park’s discussion.
It is also well worth exploring descriptions and abstracts of the other sessions at the enormous IPrA Conference. Quite a few Australian academics were in attendance.
Forensic Transcription: An introduction to the issues, and a model for evaluating the reliability of forensic and other transcripts – by Helen Fraser, University of New England, NSW Australia
Forensic transcription is the interpretation and representation in writing of the content of covert (secret) recordings used as evidence in criminal trials (as distinct from transcription of the trial proceedings themselves).
The study of forensic transcription raises many issues familiar from linguistic research on verbatim transcripts. Notable among these is the need to recognise that entextualisation is a complex, context-dependent process, far from the simple transduction of speech into writing often assumed by the legal community (e.g. Bucholtz 2009).
However, due to the nature and use of the audio, forensic transcription also raises additional issues of substantial importance (Fraser 2014). Many forensic recordings are of extremely poor quality, to the point of being unintelligible without the aid of a transcript. It is common practice in many jurisdictions to allow police to provide a transcript as assistance for the trier of fact (jury or judge) in making out what is said. These and other factors create a number of problems.
First, reliable transcription of indistinct audio requires both training (Fraser 2014) and neutrality (Wald 1995). Since police typically lack both, their transcripts are often misleading in significant ways (Fraser 2017). Second, since a transcript ‘primes’ listeners’ perception, it is easy for lawyers, judges and juries to overlook crucial errors, resulting in actual and potential injustice (Fraser 2018a).
Attempts to develop a process that ensures reliable interpretation of indistinct forensic audio (Fraser 2018b) have resulted in articulation of a model of transcription that might be of wider application in transcription studies.
The current presentation sets out relevant background on forensic transcription and outlines the model.
Bucholtz, M. 2009. Captured on tape: professional hearing and competing entextualizations in the criminal justice system. Text and Talk – an Interdisciplinary Journal of Language, Discourse & Communication Studies, 29(5), 503–523.
Fraser, H. 2014. Transcription of indistinct forensic recordings: Problems and solutions from the perspective of phonetic science. Language and Law/Linguagem E Direito, 1(2), 5–21.
Fraser, H. 2017. How interpretation of indistinct covert recordings can lead to wrongful conviction: A case study and recommendations for reform. In R. Levy, et al. (Eds.), New directions for law in Australia: Essays in contemporary law reform(pp. 191–200). Canberra: ANU Press.
Fraser, H. 2018a. “Assisting” listeners to hear words that aren’t there: Dangers in using police transcripts of indistinct covert recordings. Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences, 50(2), 129–139.
Fraser, H. 2018b. Covert recordings used as evidence in criminal trials: Concerns of Australian linguists. Judicial Officers’ Bulletin, 30(6), 53–56.
Wald, B. 1995. The problem of scholarly predisposition. Language in Society, 24(2), 245–257.