To Reveal or Not: More Thoughts on the Ethics of Genealogy

My post yesterday prompted a lot of comments both here on the blog and also in two genealogy groups I follow on Facebook, Tracing the Tribe, which is a Jewish genealogy group, and the group.  I am very grateful for all the thoughts and discussion, and I have a better idea of where to draw the line between revealing and not revealing information.   I will try to summarize the viewpoints articulated by those who participated in these discussions.

Generally speaking, there are two different views.  One view is that telling the truth is an important principle in reporting the results of genealogy research.  Genealogy is a form of history, and without all the details, we are distorting history.  If we delete information, we are not giving a full picture of a family’s history.  In fact, we are whitewashing the information and creating a picture that presents people as perfect when in reality people are always flawed, make mistakes, endure hardships, suffer from illnesses, marital problems, financial problems, and so on.  What is the point of history if it is not truthful?

On the other hand, many people argue that there is a need to respect the privacy and feelings of others and thus to keep certain information that may hurt someone or embarrass them from being disclosed, both publicly and to those it might hurt or embarrass.  Several people mentioned the traditional Jewish principles of not doing anything to shame or embarrass another and of  lashon hara—not to say anything about anyone, whether true or false, whether flattering or insulting.  My rabbi and dear friend Rabbi Herbert Schwartz also reminded me that even God did not reveal the truth all the time and that lying is sometimes better than truth-telling when the feelings of others are involved.


IAJGS (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One person pointed me to the website for the IAJGS (International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies)  and its statement of ethical principles for genealogists.  Among the guidelines they espouse is one that suggests that information that is more than 75 years old may be disclosed.  Quoting from the IAJGS website:

Regarding the “right to privacy” versus the “freedom of information” area of potential conflict:

  • Data more than 75 years old should be regarded as sufficiently historical to be available, without restriction.
  • More recent data should be evaluated in the light of sensitivities of the living versus the importance of disseminating information.
  • Generally, a request from an individual that certain information about themselves or close relatives be kept private should be respected.
  • It if is decided not to publish any particular piece of information, there should be a clear statement to that effect so that the reader is not misled by the omission.

Ethics statement approved by the IAJGS Board of Directors 2 November 2002

The website also includes the Ten Commandments in Genealogy written by Rabbi Malcolm Stern.  These include the following:

9. The sensitivities of living people must be respected and the memory of the deceased likewise, but for the latter it is permitted to record the objective facts about them.

All parties seem to agree that anything about a living person should not be disclosed.  I agree whole-heartedly with that point of view, and I only provide information about anyone living if they consent first.  I keep the details of my family tree on password-protected pages for that reason, i.e., that they include living descendants.

So where do I come out on this debate?  As I said, my views are more clear now than they were before, but they are not yet truly defined.  I agree with both views.  I honor the principle of truth.  As someone who loves history and who is educated in the law, I believe that knowing the truth is important to each of us personally and to our society as a whole.  But I also embrace the need to avoid harming another person if at all possible.  I would hate to think that something I write causes pain to another, but I also know that that pain is rooted in the truth I’ve revealed, not simply in the fact that I have revealed it.

For me that means that, as we lawyers like to say, it depends.  It depends on the circumstances.  Here are some of the circumstances I will and do consider before writing about something that might be upsetting to another person:

  1. Are these documented facts or just allegations? If the latter, I must indicate that they are only allegations or perhaps not even report them at all.  If it was information from a newspaper article, I will quote that source; if it is something that I was told by a relative, I would not report it unless I could find sufficient corroboration.
  2. How long ago did these events occur? I like the 75 year rule adopted by the IAJGS, meaning anything before 1940 would be considered generally publishable if documented.  For me, I might even use a 100 year rule, meaning anything before 1914 is publishable if documented.  However, even in those circumstances, I might still hesitate to reveal the information if there is some other reason not to do so.  For example, if a living descendant asks me not to do so (see #4 below) or if the facts are relatively insignificant.
  3. If I do reveal those older facts, I may also take steps to protect the identity of any living descendants of that person.  For example, if someone who lived 120 years ago committed a crime, is it necessary to reveal the names of his or her children or grandchildren in a blog post about that person? By making it less obvious who the descendants are, it will be harder for others to make that connection. If a descendant, say, a great-grandchild, looks hard enough, they might find out that their great-grandparent committed a crime, but if they look that hard, they also likely would have found it the same way I did—from publicly available records.
  4. For information that is more recent than 75 years, I would only reveal that information if I am sure that either there are no living direct descendants or if I am in touch with living descendants and am able to discuss the facts with them and get their permission to write about it on the blog.  I do not generally think it is my role to tell someone something that may upset them; I am not a psychologist and am not able to deal with the reactions I might cause.  But if I know that that person already knows the information, then I am more willing to let them know that I have learned about it from some public source and then to talk to them about it.  If I can’t find the living descendants, then I would not reveal information that is more recent than 1940.
  5. If a descendant asks me not to write about something on the blog, I will not do so.  Yes, that may distort history, but this is personal history, family history—not the kind that changes society or reveals the truth about how political decisions are made.  This is not a cover-up that will affect many people, if any, outside of one particular family.

Do these principles/guidelines make sense? I am still struggling with this, and I know that not everyone will agree.  The truth-seekers will not be happy with me for holding back some information; those who do not believe in revealing upsetting information will not be happy that I will reveal that information in certain circumstances.  I know that my thoughts and my practice will evolve over time, and I know that I will continue to struggle and to seek counsel from all of you.

Thank you to everyone who commented, both here and on Facebook, and for helping me think through this difficult issue.



Genealogy Ethics: What and Who Do You Tell the Things You Learn?


question (Photo credit: cristinacosta)

This past Sunday the New York Times ran an article about a reporter who learned that his great-great-grandfather, a New York City police officer, had killed a man under questionable circumstances, but had never gone to trial.  The reporter tracked down the descendant of the victim and told him the story.  That descendant had never known that his great-grandfather had been killed.  I found this story interesting, but it also raised a number of questions about the ethics of uncovering a family secret.  What lines should I draw when I learn something that might be upsetting to a descendant?

It doesn’t even have to be something involving criminal conduct.  It could be learning about financial troubles, medical issues, family issues—all of which can be discovered in public sources like newspapers, census reports, vital records, wills, court documents, and other records that anyone, whether related or not, can find.  Does the fact that these are publicly available facts make a difference in terms of disclosure and privacy?

Is there some point in time when revealing that information is clearly appropriate?  Is there some point in time when those events are not remote enough in time?  Does it matter whether the family involved never even asked you to do the research versus a situation where they asked but had no knowledge of the troubling information? Are there times you definitely should reveal information? Are there times that you definitely should not?  What about putting things on a publicly accessible source such as a blog? What are the proper lines in that context?

I am seriously interested in these questions and what others think about them.  Whether you are a genealogy person or not, I would really like to know what you think.  Please leave your thoughts here.  I really think this issue merits serious discussion.