Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, August 15, 2014

I read it in the newspaper

Over the years, from time to time, I have been involved in situations where I had first-hand knowledge of events subsequently reported in newspaper accounts. Unless the reporter was extremely meticulous in recording the facts, I found that the information usually got somewhat garbled. This was usually true of summaries or side comments. My experience points out an important consideration for genealogical researchers: don't believe all that you read in the old newspapers and don't rely too much on any one document. I use the rule of "Three." That is, I try to get three sources to agree to any fact before I take anything seriously.

I guess I got started on this issue when I read a recent report in a local newspaper about something I was reasonably familiar with. The issues were inconsequential but the facts were contradictory and wrong. My question is how are the people who are ignorant of the true facts supposed to know that what is recorded in the newspaper is wrong? This particular report was surprising because it dealt with a genealogy topic and genealogy is largely ignored by the daily news.

If we need any more reason to search for multiple sources, we only need to remember the number of times the records we encounter have been inaccurate in some detail or another. One of the most famous blunders in newspaper history was the headline news that Thomas Dewey beat Harry Truman in the 1948 Presidential Election. We might smugly believe that our advanced technology makes such a mistake less likely, but in fact, it makes this kind of problem more likely. News can travel more rapidly and mistakes can be broadcast to the entire world before the media gets corrected. But as genealogists we don't have to worry about huge news-grabbing issues. We must rely on the small details that hardly ever get corrected. How many times have you seen a subsequent notice of correction or retraction? Have you looked for these in doing your research?

In a few recent posts, I have mentioned the unreliability of user-submitted family trees, but that is not the only place where errors and misinformation get started. As you go about your daily task of reviewing documents, I am sure that you will find contradictory evidence. How much credence do you attribute to diaries and journals? I am sorry to report that people are not always truthful and sometimes write what they wished happened rather than the true facts. It is also possible to lie by leaving out significant facts.

A study in 2007 confirmed an earlier study that about half of the stories in Minneapolis daily newspapers had typographical errors, factual errors and errors of meaning. See "Setting the Record Straight, When the Press Errs, Do Corrections Follow?" Maier, S. R. 2007. "SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT When the Press Errs, Do Corrections Follow?" JOURNALISM PRACTICE. 1, no. 1: 33-43.

In a related area, I remember sitting in a courtroom for a jury trial and listening to my own client testify and realizing that he was lying, the opposing attorney was lying and the opposing party was lying. I could not figure out how to get out of that situation since I could not produce any testimony to contradict any of the testimony given at trial. In another lawsuit, my client gave me a long involved story about how he acquired a piece of property only to have the opposing attorney produce my client's own documents in court that contradicted his testimony. I could go on and on and on with examples. If this is the case in day to day court proceedings, how can we possibly rely on old documents and newspapers?

Back to the Rule of Three. Inexperience and lack of diligence will likely produce inaccuracy in genealogical research. It is very common for a newly minted researcher to grab the first document, census or whatever and believe the facts have been proved. It is not unusual that subsequently acquired documents will modify the earlier findings. What is more, researchers need to learn to expect this to happen. So don't fault me for piling on the sources and questioning your conclusions.

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