The end of shorthand?: A journalism student’s reaction to the NCTJ’s latest decision

The NCTJ Diploma in Journalism – as I am currently studying it – is a course which has so many subjects rolled into one. My regret at not studying Law at A-Level was short-lived when I realised that I would be touching on it ever so slightly in ‘Law for Production Journalists’, and my knowledge of politics expanded when studying public administration. But then, there’s shorthand.

Shorthand Pen and Notebook
Shorthand and public affairs will become optional choices for students taking the NCTJ Diploma in Journalism next year. Photo: Wannabe Hacks on Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/legalcode.

For those of us who enjoy learning new languages and the fun it can bring, Teeline presents itself a challenge, but an exciting one. Yet, for young people still haunted by the hours of French they had to do in middle school, it fills them with dread.

What follows is a lengthy debate which still lingers in the industry today: shorthand – is it a dying language? Do I really need to study it in the era of smartphones, dictaphones and other recording devices?

Yesterday evening, those who are tired of transcribing recordings about community waste disposal schemes for the fifth time may finally have their prayers answered, as the National Council for the Training of Journalists announced that shorthand was to be made an optional subject from September 2017 for students not planning to enter news journalism. A debate which had quietened down after new undergraduates reluctantly accepted that they would have to learn it was reignited, and the question of whether shorthand is needed was thrown out into the open once more.

In an article on the council’s website, NCTJ Chairman Kim Fletcher, speaking on the Radio 4 Today programme, said: “If you think you want a different career and you want to go and be a social media journalist or do something completely different and you’re never going to be facing a politician then maybe you can get through without shorthand and we’ll help you get a qualification without it.”

It’s an understandable decision in that regard. When you brush away the technology argument, then you must consider: who really does benefit from shorthand?

As Jon Simcock – a member of the NCTJ shorthand exam board – said in an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live Drive yesterday, “for a news journalist shorthand is absolutely essential”.

He said: “For example, in court you’re not allowed to take a voice recorder, a smartphone or anything to record the proceedings so you need to be able to take a really accurate fast note of what’s happening and shorthand gives you that ability.”

As an aspiring news journalist, shorthand remains on the table. One whole year spent pushing through my 60 and 80wpm exams would feel wasted if I called it a day before achieving ‘the gold standard’ of 100wpm (plus there’s the small fact that I actually enjoy learning it). Another point made for studying shorthand is the sense of hard work and effort it can communicate to employers – learning another language and becoming fluent in it is always something impressive. Whilst Teeline is an industry-specific language, something tells me that for journalists applying for jobs outside the news sector, learning a foreign language also shows a similar level of dedication. The connotations of studying shorthand can easily be replaced in that sense.

It’s a decision by the NCTJ which I welcome. As journalism continues to expand and mingle with technology, an ancient, written language may start to drift off the radar. News journalists will continue to learn shorthand, and when it comes to that, let’s hope Teeline lingers in the background of the journalism industry – there, but when you need and want to learn it.

Meanwhile, the fact that public affairs is also optional is more concerning. Whilst the decision to make an ancient language optional is somewhat understandable, doing it to something which continues to remain in the present is a bad decision (look no further than Brexit, the Investigatory Powers Bill and Donald Trump for proof as to why learning about the electorate, the separation of powers and politics in general is important for students to learn).

If the reasons for doing this comes down to giving students more choice based on their chosen career path, then we must remember that politics affects everyone. For example, a data journalist would want to analyse the fall in the pound’s value after Brexit having that knowledge of how the EU influences the economy. A decent knowledge of politics isn’t a good skill specifically required of journalists; it’s required of every British citizen in order to make an educated decision when it comes to voting every five years in a General Election.

For some children and young people, the only political education comes through PSCHE (Personal, Social, Citizenship and Health Education) classes, where issues regarding the impartiality of teachers mean that lessons are either kept to a minimum or are more factual in nature – lacking the debate which brings politics to life.

My first vote was during the 2015 General Election, and the discussion around it educated me to an extent. Yet, I only began to learn the intricacies of the UK political system through the Public Administration module at university. I was even fortunate to know the different bodies within the European Union a few months ahead of the referendum, which was a big help. I digress, but for any type of journalist, a knowledge of politics is essential, and so to see it be made an optional choice is a shame and a little concerning.

Will political debate in the news industry decline as a result of this? Of course not. But the debate around the necessity of shorthand will continue for years to come.

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