abc News : Automating loss

Use of transcript software exposes editorial need.

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The feature

abc News, part of US broadcaster abc, looks to have fallen foul of a reliance on transcription software. abc News has a Video section where users can view the inaugural address given by President Obama when he was sworn in on 21 January for a second term in office. A panel below the viewing screen and related links box provides a transcript of the address, with an internal scroll bar to aid browsing. The transcript is oddly punctuated (for example, “We bear witness. To the Enduring Strength.”), littered with double dashes (- -) indicating missing words (for example, “We hold these truths - – To be self - - That all men.”) and mis-hearings (for example, “Are created equal. And god. By their creator”).

The takeaway

That one of the US’s iconic broadcasters is running a flawed transcript of the president’s inaugural address is scarcely believable; that it has continued to do so for almost three days since the address was delivered raises a serious question about the management of its website content. Either no one has noticed the nonsensical version of the speech being presented or it is thought acceptable. In either case the potential damage to the broadcaster’s reputation is heightened by the high profile of the speech – to say nothing of the transcript’s mangling of phrases that are part of the American national identity. The immediate culprit is the transcription software that fairly evidently has been used to create the abc text. Why it should have been employed instead of the official transcripts that would be available as a matter of course to broadcasters – and are clearly good enough for other news organisations, as a quick search for their coverage shows – is open to speculation: budget, hubris, editorial independence? But the end result is publication of a piece that would never be allowed to see the light of day in print. abc needs urgently to look at its own editorial standards and how to integrate automated content generation to bolster not undermine them.
First published 24 January, 2013
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