The Board for Certification of Genealogists offer credential to properly trained genealogical researchers.
This month, I’d like to use something of a “teachable moment” that happened in the media recently to illustrate a point.
There’s a type of mistake frequently made in genealogical research that occurs often enough to warrant its own term. It’s what experienced researchers call, “the name’s the same.” It’s when you find the name of someone you’re looking for in some documentation, but as you go along, you find that it’s not the person you’re seeking; it’s actually a different person with the same name.
The Genealogical Proof Standard is the cornerstone of proper research. It was developed by the Board for Certification of Genealogists to develop a framework for “proving” one’s research, even though there may not be complete documentary proof. In other words, if you’re trying to prove a point without a so-called “smoking gun,” you better follow these guidelines to try and prove your point.
In a nutshell, the GPS requires:
- A reasonably exhaustive search
- Complete and accurate source citations
- Analysis and correlation of the collected information
- Resolution of any conflicting evidence
- A soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion
When the alleged shooter’s name was finally released in the wake of the recent Aurora, Colo. shootings, I’m sure there was a great wave of Google searches that went out with the alleged shooter’s name, James Holmes, not just from news agencies, but from the millions of people who were who had an information device handy when the name was announced. ABC News’s Brian Ross went out on a limb (that eventually collapsed) when he tied the identity of the suspect – solely on the basis of his name – to the possibility that he was a member of the Tea Party, a conservative group.
Looking at the Genealogical Proof Standard, I don’t think that Ross – or his producers – hit any one of those points.
Now, this isn’t about politics. As people who know me can tell you, I’m pretty far away from ever being a member of the Tea Party. But I am a former journalist and a genealogist, and from my knowledge in both of those fields I know that you better have some pretty convincing evidence if you’re making a serious assertion like that, and that Ross’s reporting it is just plain sloppy journalism. In the heat of a breaking news story there are times when information flies furiously. But part of the job of a news organization is to be the filter that the raw facts come pouring in to, that those facts need to be checked and presented in a logical manner.
And, after all, isn’t what I just said a condensed version of the Genealogical Proof Standard? Are genealogists better journalists than journalists? It would seem that most, at least, are better than some.
Danny Klein is a librarian at the Jersey City Free Public Library’s New Jersey Room. He is also a past president of the Hudson County Genealogical and Historical Society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.