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Focus on Press Transcripts

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Media – Focus on Press Transcripts
2008.11.20

Can transcripts produced by the media be trusted?

Following the broadcast of Russell Brand’s Radio 2 show on 18th October, two complaints were made about the messages he and Jonathan Ross left on Andrew Sachs’s answerphone. A week later, as the story became widely reported, 1,585 complaints had been lodged. After two weeks, over 42,000 complaints had been raised.

Not every complaint was made by someone who had actually heard the programme.  For most people, the closest they came to the offending material was the transcripts reproduced in newspapers. There seem to be two differing versions of the transcript: one used by the Independent, the Telegraph, and the Times among others; the other used by the Guardian and the Daily Mail inter alia. These clearly don’t appear to be separated by party-political lines.

There are some differences in the two transcripts, though. The one used by the Independent has Brand saying, ‘I’m sorry Mr Fawlty I’m sorry, they’re a waste of space…’, whereas the Daily Mail has ‘I’m sorry Mr Fawlty, I’m sorry. You’re a waste of space!’ (all sic).

The Independent’s version has:

Ross: So while he’s listening to the messages he’s looking at a picture of her about nine on a swing.

Brand: She was on a swing when I met her. Oh no!

Ross: And probably enjoyed her.

Brand: Let’s ring back Andrew Sachs…

The Daily Mail has:

Ross: So while he is listening to the message he is looking at a picture of her when she was about nine on a swing…

Brand: She was on a swing when I met her … let’s ring back Andrew Sachs.

The Daily Mail includes:

Sachs: [his answer machine message] Sorry I can’t answer at the moment…

Brand: [interrupting] … I am too busy thinking about killing myself…

But the Independent excises this segment entirely. Instead, the Independent reports:

Brand: Andrew this is Russell Brand. I’m so sorry about the last message. It was part of the radio show. It was a mistake.

Ross: It was just a joke. If there is any truth in that, I don’t know. It was just a joke.

Brand: It was just a joke that we done. I didn’t ask him to say it though…

Ross: It might be true, but we didn’t want to break it to you in such a harsh way.

Brand: Ok, look the truth is, Andrew I’m ringing you to ask if I can marry, that’s right marry your granddaughter, Georgina the granddaughter.

The Daily Mail summarises this as:

Brand: [interrupting] … I am too busy thinking about killing myself … Andrew, this is Russell Brand. I am so sorry about the last message – it was part of the radio show, it was a mistake … The truth is I am phoning you to ask if I can marry – that’s right, marry – Georgina the granddaughter.

The Independent notes Ross’s remark, ‘She was bent over the couch…’, but this was excluded by the Daily Mail.

On balance, neither transcript skews the story in any one consistent direction.  Both are gentler to Ross and Brand in places, but harsher in others.  But although not biased, neither transcript can be said to be accurate.

So to what extent can transcripts produced by the media be trusted?  First of all, they are rarely deliberately unfair. The source audio will usually be publicly available, or at least become publicly available soon enough, so journalists do not have too much latitude to misrepresent comments.

The problem is that journalists are not professional transcribers. Experienced and trained transcribers use specialist equipment to ensure accuracy. Andrew Trotter, managing director of a leading transcription company, Global Lingo, explains the process.  ‘Journalists will normally play a tape just once when transcribing, pausing every so often. This means they have to write down what was said as best they can remember.  Global Lingo’s professional transcribers use a specially designed program to replay audio several times to guarantee that every sentence has been taken down accurately. If a journalist tried to do that with a Dictaphone, it would take hours. Our transcripts then go to a skilled editor for a thorough second check, which most journalists won’t bother with’.

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