How Zooey Deschanel Became Terrorist for a Day


Zoey Deschanel Boston Marathon

Tragedies like the one in Boston last week put those of us who were helpless to offer assistance in a familiar position — glued to our TV screens, or else refreshing our browsers for updates from CNN or Fox. In the wake of the bombing, there were heaps of information, but just as much misinformation — a third bomb at the JFK Library, and a suspect in custody a day or two after the bombings occurred — but we took it with a grain of salt.¬† Live TV, after all, is sometimes unpredictable.

One of the “anything can happen” moments occurred on Friday, an incident which went viral on in the following days — local news station KDSW Dallas, in its closed captions, identified bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as New Girl star “Zooey Deschanel.” How can such an egregious mistake happen? What faulty computer software mistook the TV star and total sweetheart for a Chechen terror suspect?

Answer: a human. The fact is, there isn’t technology yet that can identify the dialects of Texans, Minnesotans, and Bostonians. There isn’t a line of code or algorithm that can hear George W. say “nucular weapons” and know that he meant “nuclear” or that can spell “Dzhokhar” after hearing it spoken once. For that, we have the ears and fingers of the Stenocaptioner, a human writing at the speed of sound, who is required to listen to the audio and almost simultaneously¬†“write” up to 240 words per minute using a 22-key stenography machine, all the while keeping a 98.5% accuracy rate. Easy, it ain’t. In fact, about 90% of court stenography students drop out before certification.

One method for speeding up the difficult task of captioning Live TV (besides downing half-a-dozen Red Bulls) is by programming words into their “dictionary,” a library of terms and proper names likely to come up. For example, a Captioner for ABC News might program the name “Stephanopoulos” into a single-keystroke to avoid typing the 14-letter beast and missing valuable text in between. The Stenocaptioner in the Deschanel incident likely had a pre-programmed entry for Deschanel’s name, which they used at just the wrong time.

There is no Captioner’s dictionary for breaking news. There is no guarantee that the Captioner will recognize every spoken word. All that is certain is that their mistakes will be DVR’d without mercy.

Errors like these are the stuff of captioning lore, for instance, the Captioner who accidentally called Nancy Reagan a “former fertile lady” or the one that listed Alan Greenspan in the hospital with an “enlarged prostitute.” These things happen. The least we can do is appreciate a little humor in a very un-funny time.

by Carlin Twedt