Inconsistent television captioning is a barrier to equal access
“A major [INAUDIBLE] with damaging winds and [INAUDIBLE] is headed our way. A [INAUDIBLE] storm [INAUDIBLE] has been issued, with projected [INAUDIBLE] as high as [INAUDIBLE] beginning [INAUDIBLE].
Would you be ready?
Our world long ago entered the age of the 24-hour news cycle, and a full understanding of the “who, what, when, where and why” of the news is critical for deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing citizens. Yet, Connecticut’s inconsistent quality of television captioning locks our community out of the complete sense of what is happening.
News captioning is vital to persons who are deaf or hard of hearing—particularly during breaking news and the weather. Maps and graphics are great visual cues, but we need clear, actionable information to know exactly what is going on so we can prepare.
Sadly, if we were to issue an end-of-year grade for the captioning services provided by Connecticut broadcasters in 2020, it would be “incomplete; needs improvement.”
At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic Gov. Ned Lamont became one of the nation’s first governors to hold regular media briefings with an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter at his side. Soon thereafter, the governor and his staff set up a standard video feed with the Connecticut Network (CT-N) for his news conferences, featuring a separate “inset” camera focused on the interpreter. The governor’s office also made sure that all of the emergency communications are captioned.
The governor and CT-N knew that something important enough to report is something important enough to be understood by everyone. We thank them for their quick action to make these briefings uniformly accessible.
So, what about the TV stations?
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires all video programming distributors to make televised emergency information accessible to persons with disabilities. The FCC requires —to the greatest extent possible— that captions be accurate, synchronous with the spoken word, complete and properly placed on screen so they can be read. Broadcasters in Nielsen’s top 25 television markets must provide real-time, live captioning of their news programs, but Connecticut is not in the top 25 markets, giving local broadcasters flexibility for captioning their news. All scripted moments are captioned, but the full sense of the news comes through in the unscripted moments —particularly during weather reports.
Herein lies the rub. If the deaf and hard of hearing can’t participate in the full news experience because of inconsistent captioning, a whole section of the public is walled off from what’s happening.
In mid-2020, we held remote video meetings with WFSB, WTNH, NBC Connecticut and Fox 61 to express the need for them to boost their captioning quality. We thank them for their collaborative spirit and we learned a great deal. But we also learned in the lead-up to a recent December storm that captioning in Connecticut has a long way to go.
On Wednesday, December 15, the Governor was leaving an event and had an impromptu chat with reporters. The conversation quickly turned to the coming winter storm that eventually dumped over a foot of snow across Connecticut. Before you knew it, one local station went live on Facebook touting “Snow Emergency,” and a quick scan of the other stations revealed spotty coverage and spottier captioning less than 24 hours from the impending storm.
Incomplete captioning creates a barrier to equal access to information.
No one can predict when news will happen. That is why if the news organizations want to be inclusive, they should be prepared with accurate virtual live interpreting, live captioning or use the excellent AI captioning that is available on the market for when informal moments quickly turn into breaking news.
The next time you are watching your local news, turn down the volume and turn on the captioning—especially through the unscripted live interviews and banter during the weather—and find out if you gain all you need to know.
Many of us spent the holidays exchanging virtual meeting links —rather than hugs— to connect with our families. If Zoom can let you caption your holiday call with better clarity than you can get on TV, that tells you that we can do better in 2021.
Connecticut’s television stations need to strengthen their accessibility for all. Now that the new year is here, let’s resolve to include everybody in breaking news.
Jeffrey Bravin and Barbara Cassin are members of the Connecticut Advisory Board for Persons Who are Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing
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