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Why I Hope Closed Caption Typos Never Go Away Completely

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Boston Mayor Tom Menino, as famously enunciation-challenged as he is gifted at urban management, got an apt welcome when he announced he’d be working for Boston University after he leaves City Hall next year. As I watched the closed captioning scrolling across a local TV station’s coverage, Hizzoner’s “announcement” got translated as “I Nouncment.”

This wasn’t a plot by Republican-leaning station managers to embarrass Democrat Menino. Crappy captioning is legend among those who follow this technology (yes, some do), such as the National Captioning Institute (yes, it exists). The Institute explains why such snafus happen — I’ll get to that in a moment — but let’s hope they never completely vanish. They remind us of the enduring foibles, and joys, of being human.

The captioning occasionally becomes an exercise in truly creative writing. One crime report noted that the suspect sped away in a Toyota Cameron Diaz.

Don’t misunderstand. Closed captioning is an important service. The Captioning Institute, a nonprofit, was formed in 1979 to make TV broadcasts understandable to deaf people and those hard of hearing. The service also assists viewers learning English as a second language. The occasional Menino-like mangle in a caption shouldn’t prevent folks from understanding the program they’re watching or cause them to flunk the next English test. But it does add some needed comic relief to a day.

I watch the sunrise news reports on the TV screens arrayed in front of the sweaty exercisers at my gym. The captioning occasionally becomes an exercise in truly creative writing. One crime report noted that the suspect sped away in a Toyota Cameron Diaz. (I’ve never been mechanically inclined, but I think they meant Toyota Camry.) Earlier this year, a photo of Pope Francis placing his hands on a man ricocheted around the globe, including onto the gym TV, where the captioning informed me that many wondered if he was performing an Ex Sore Kitchen. Whatever the Holy Father's culinary skills, other reports clarified that the question actually focused on exorcism.

A Texas newspaper, responding to a reader’s complaint about such glitches, cited the Captioning Institute’s explanation, which, unsurprisingly, boils down to human error:

“Real-time captioners use a computerized system based on the stenographic shorthand used by court reporters. A real-time captioner, someone who has been trained to transcribe speech to text using a steno machine, listens to a program’s dialogue as it is being broadcast and enters the words phonetically in stenographic shorthand code. The steno machine is connected to a computer containing software that translates stenographic shorthand into words using standard spellings and then converts them to a caption format…

“Since real-time captions are being created and displayed while the program is being broadcast, there is no opportunity to proofread captions or to replay difficult to understand audio. As a result, errors do occur, usually in the form of incorrect, though phonetically similar, words (such as ‘row place’ instead of ‘replace.’) NCI continuously assesses each real-time captioner’s work so that accuracy rates of 98 percent or better can be maintained.”

(Andy Manis/AP)
(Andy Manis/AP)

For the sake of those who rely on this technology, here’s hoping they nail that target. Without captioning, I couldn't understand the news at the gym, where it doesn't make sense to turn up the volume on all those sets. The problem comes when reliance on technology morphs into addiction. I see it on long subway rides, in those bionic men and women who seem half-robots, their heads surgically wired to handheld music-players, apparently unable to savor the pleasant company of their own thoughts. Or I sit in meetings at which some guy frantically texts or emails as though his correspondents can't wait. (If so, why is he wasting time at a meeting?)

In fact, the texting can wait, at least while you’re driving, which is the eminently sane message against technological addiction that the stars of my favorite TV fiction, "Supernatural," offer in a public service I Nouncment. (Oops.)

Closed-captioned goofs remind that technology, made by humans, incorporates human fallibility, and that overdependence on it breeds oversight — whether it's our introspection on the subway that we're ignoring, or our fellow humans at the meeting table, or the rules of safe driving.

So here’s also hoping for that 1 or 2 percent error rate in captioning. Besides, my gym's bleary-eyed early birds who’d rather be home in bed could use a good chuckle.

This program aired on November 28, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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