A recent episode of the `Made in America’ series on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer included a segment in which reporters David Muir and Sharyn Alfonsi helped remake the home of the Usry family in Dallas. All of the family’s appliances, furniture, clothing, and other foreign-made possessions were carted away. The goal was to replace everything with strictly American-made goods.

You wouldn’t know it was the same story, though, if you relied on the captions. Closed captioning benefits hearing-impaired viewers, but at least twice the audible phrase “made in America” appeared on screen as “marijuana-made.” The text was superimposed on the family’s bedroom, and viewers might have wondered whether it was the rug or bedding which were made from American hemp and whether it was 100 percent Californian. (Thai would be cheating.)




If you were listening to the story, you realized that the captioning had gone terribly wrong. You could only conclude that the person inputting the captions was either high or pushing a political agenda. Or perhaps the captioning process was automated, and the computer was suffering from a loose wire or a faulty algorithm.

So we sent ABC News a photo of our on-screen evidence from Sawyer’s March 2nd broadcast. Upon reviewing the captioner’s file, an ABC spokesman blamed a “misstroke” by an employee of Vitac, the company that operates the captioning service.

According to ABC, live programming is captioned by in-the-flesh typists who listen to a program at the same time as the TV audience and write what they hear on twenty-two-key steno machines like those used in courtrooms. Additional characters are formed by depressing key combinations. This enables the captioner to type in excess of 240 words per minute, a speed necessary to keep up in real time. Even so, live captions typically lag a few seconds behind the spoken words.

David Ford, director of publicity for ABC World News with Diane Sawyer, issued the following statement that he forwarded from Vitac:

We have found that the error in question is the result of a captioner misstroke. Although the words American and marijuana are not similar in meaning and are spelled differently, the way that a captioner writes these words on a steno machine is actually very similar — so much so that a slight bump of one key or a miss of another key is the only difference between the words American and marijuana.

According to Vitac, “Dialog we hear on television is delivered at a fast pace, and captioners are hearing it and writing simultaneously with no delay in the transmission of their translation to make corrections…. Unfortunately, captioners do make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes will show up as part of the broadcast captions.”

As the `Made in America’ series continued the following night, we tuned in World News anxious to see if Vitac had cleaned up its act. Indeed, an intervention by ABC must have worked because there wasn’t a whiff of marijuana anywhere—at least not in plain sight.

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Michael Antonoff writes about technology. He is a former magazine editor and newspaper reporter who now creates Web content for BHphoto.com.