On presidential debate nights, her job is yuge

The Takeaway

As the clip above shows, during the last Republican debate in Houston, viewers saw five different candidates and a moderator trying to talk over each other.

It's difficult for the average person to make sense of exchanges like that. Now imagine that it's your job to communicate those exchanges, in real time, to millions of people who are watching without sound — some may be hearing impaired, while others might just be watching with friends at a bar.

That's where captioners come in. They have seconds to translate every word of political debates — and every other live event on television — into text. And that’s something Amy Bowlen does for a living. She's the manager of captioner training at VITAC, America’s biggest captioning firm, and she’s also a captioner herself.

VITAC has captioned several debates during the 2016 election cycle, including the last GOP debate in Houston. The firm will also be providing the text for tonight's debate in Detroit. Bowlen says that, overall, her job has become more difficult over the years.

“I’ve been captioning for 26 years, and the decorum [has changed] — there was more of a typical format where people listened to somebody and let them finish the end of their sentences; normal discussion,” she says. “And with the debates, you add the factor that it’s timed, so there’s only so many minutes or so much time for each person to respond, so they’re talking quicker. But what’s surprising is that other people are interjecting while they’re talking.”

Bowlen first noticed this change in dialogue and discourse with the rise of pundit-centric cable talk shows.

“In my experience, that’s when I’ve noticed,” she says. “There’s more competition — if you have three or four cable stations with 24 hour news and they’re trying to keep your attention, they’re moving quickly.”

When thinking back to the moment when Wolf Blitzer seemingly lost control of the Houston GOP debate (above clip), Bowlen says she begins to sweat a bit.

“My palms are getting sweaty all over again,” she says. “That’s a really challenging situation. The truth of the matter is we really can only write one speaker at a time. So, honestly, there’s not a captioner out there that could have written every single one of those words from every single different speaker. There are sometimes when, if you really just cannot even discern one individual person speaking, you would have to put up a parenthetical that says, ‘(Overlapping Speakers).’ But we try as hard as we can to be as near verbatim as possible.”

Bowlen says that captioners would never write something like “unintelligible” because the phrase has a certain connotation that could be considered bias. Separating personal opinions, she says, is absolutely necessary in the captioning business.

Personal opinions aside, trying to caption squabbles at presidential debates can be challenging. But Bowlen says that those writing the text must be laser focused.

“Sometimes you don’t even realize when it’s happening,” she says. “When it’s over, it’s a big sigh of relief, but you’re so intent on listening and writing that you don’t really let it affect you.”

Though she doesn’t feel it in the moment, Bowlen says that caption writers can feel the physical affects of their jobs after a session is complete.

“Your hands can get tired. It’s very fast — sometimes we’re writing up to maybe 300 words per minute, so to do that for a sustained period of time is exhausting,” she says. “And it’s not just your hands. Your shoulders, your body gets tense because you’re nervous, and the faster it gets, the more you tense up.”

Bowlen is likely to see more of that tension as the 2016 campaign moves forward. And she’s not alone.

“In reality, even people who aren’t looking at the captions but are just listening probably can’t make a lot out of what’s being said with everyone talking over one another,” she says. “It would be nice if there was some decorum in a setting like that so that we could have our captions be perfect and have them be absolutely verbatim. But there’s no way for us to control that.”

This story was first published by PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.