How Robocaptioning Breaks the Unwritten Agreements

Communication is a two-way street.  It starts with the unwritten agreements, that communication is worthwhile, that it’s important to us, that we will do whatever we can to communicate with clarity and transparency.  Maybe you want to tell a story or impart significant information to someone who needs it.  Maybe you’re trying to sell someone something.  If your audience or customer speaks English, chances are you’re not going to bombard them with Greek if you can help it.  If you and your audience don’t submit to this simple agreement to speak the same language, the effects can be confusing, misleading and even deceptive.  True as this is for spoken English, it’s perhaps even more true for closed captioning services.

Say you’ve spent millions of dollars making a film.  Every dollar is up there on the screen.  Countless hours have been spent perfecting the look, the sound of the movie.  But a sizable portion of your audience has difficulty hearing, and when they hit the CC button they are all too frequently confounded by missing words, misspellings and entire dropped phrases.

All of a sudden, your audience is paying less attention to the action on the screen and instead trying to decipher the Greek that has suddenly appeared.  Perhaps the producers of the film chose to save a few bucks with robocaptioning, in which voice-activated software, rather than human workers, are employed to create subtitles.  The irony here is that while this service is meant to enhance a viewer’s entertainment, it frequently ends up diminishing it.  One might even think that the makers of the video are providing closed captioning services only as an afterthought.  If they looked at the growing numbers of people in America who rely on closed captioning services, they might realize they’re damaging their relationship with a sizable audience.

Or what if your company makes educational videos?  Even more than with entertainment, videos that purport to train viewers are expected to carry authority in their presentation.  What happens to the authority of the teachers on the screen when the closed captioning that accompanies them is slipshod, inaccurate or just plain misleading?

Imagine the horror of having to read robocaptioning in an online video that is meant to be teaching English as a second language.  What is a student to think when they can’t trust the accuracy of the closed captioning services?  In short, poor closed captioning, particularly when generated via robocaptioning, impedes retention of information, distracts the viewer (since errors tend to call attention to the captioning itself rather than the sense it’s trying to convey), and consequently slows comprehension or stops it altogether for the viewer.

Or maybe you get the bulk of your news and public affairs information from television or Internet video?

If you’re a conscientious citizen with a hearing difficulty, you might start to think that the purveyors of public information don’t take you very seriously.