Lost in Transcription?

In Business writing, Technical communication on February 16, 2013 at 1:39 pm

What are we really capturing/documenting in accident reports? What is lost when statements and interviews are summarized in reports?

Take, for example, the following excerpt from an official police document meant to record narratives of a paper mill explosion that killed one employee and injured several others:

Police report summary of witness statement

Police report summary of witness statement

While narratives such as this are important elements of fact-finding research, the way in which they are written down “may inadvertently silence or render invisible the kinds of information that decision makers need to assess” accidents and make recommendations to prevent future disasters (to quote Beverly Sauer, who wrote about mining risks, see p 5 in “Rhetoric of Risk”).

The remainder of this blog post explores one surprising approach to improving the depth and accuracy of accident reports that include statements made by victims and witnesses.

In “Writing With, Through, and Beyond the Text,” Rebecca Luce-Kapler states: “Too often [transcripts] are quoted like chunks of text from a book as if there were no bodies in that room speaking to each other” (p 64).

Luce-Kapler goes on to consider “transcript poems,” in which the wording is captured in threads “where a ‘pause’ is not written but enacted, where laughter unfolds from the break in the line, the speed of the phrase, the space left for the reader” (p 66).

Writing transcripts in such a way provides a way for “hidden aspects” to be recorded, re-textured, and then interpreted by the researcher and the reader.

Those “hidden aspects” can be important in accident investigations and reports. For example, most reports may attribute an idea or fact to a witness’s statement; however, when that statement is summarized by the writer/researcher, the reader cannot consider the certainty of the witness’s statement.

I understand that many professional business writers, researchers, and investigators will likely be resistant (or even just unsure how) to document witness statements into poetic, re-textured form.

However, I also know that when I look at accident reports and investigation documentation, I find myself wondering about the certainty, about the delivery, about the context of the terse, summarized statements attributed to witnesses. Again, we can look to the same paper mill explosion (in this case, a report issued by the MN State Fire Marshal Division):

MN State FIre Marshal report featuring summary statements

MN State FIre Marshal report featuring summary statements

In the end, as Sauer stated, “documentation practices shape our understanding of the worlds we seek to understand and regulate” (p 331).

With that in mind, we must continually try to improve the depth and accuracy of our documentation—if not for the sake of the report, than for the sake of the victims, victim families, and future men and women who will work in hazardous environments. Part of that improvement may be “transcript poems.”

After all, what have we got to lose (that we aren’t already losing in our current documentation practices)?

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