10 ways genealogists are journalists

Girls coming through the alley. The smallest girl has been selling newspapers for two years. March 1909, Hartford, Conn. (Courtesy |  Library of Congress; Lewis Wickes Hines)

Girls coming through the alley. The smallest girl has been selling newspapers for two years. March 1909, Hartford, Conn. (Courtesy | Library of Congress; Lewis Wickes Hines)

If you’re a genealogist, you’re a journalist.

The same can’t be said in reverse, for most, though it can for me. I was drawn to journalism because I love history and I love language. In reporting, the two become one. Meantime, nothing makes history come alive like understanding your place in it. It’s the privilege of the genealogist to make connections that situate her genes in their place in time.

Journalist by day, genealogist by night. In my years of reporting on the personal and the public, I’ve seen more than a little overlap. Here are 10 examples.

  1. Sources can lie. It happens in reporting. Sometimes you know it and can’t prove it. Other times, you don’t even realize until later. That public servant who has no intention of seeking higher office? Her recent fundraising activity says otherwise. It happens in genealogy, too. That ancestor who spelled his name Emil? He went by Amiel in his early years. Changing the spelling of a name and fudging the year of birth are the white lies of family history. The date on the social security registry doesn’t match the date in the family Bible. And nearly everyone has heard the one about the American Indian ancestor, or the link to royalty, or how an ancestor almost boarded the Titanic. In genealogy as in journalism, trust but verify.
  2. Sometimes you start out thinking you’re reporting one story, and you find a much better one. Oftentimes, in fact. I was a cub reporter working on a story about several generations of a family who attended the same GED program. In the course of the interview, I was shocked at the realization that this family had been victim of a brutal robbery and beating, ending in the death of the family’s grandfather and a new normal for the surviving grandmother. It was a widely reported story, but the different last names meant I hadn’t made the connection. There they were, four generations living together, and the story that I came to report was such a sliver of the larger reality they faced, how they came together under duress and hung together in the aftermath, finding hope for the future in the great-granddaughter they were raising together. In reporting, as in researching your personal history, you have to be open to redirection. What you find could be far richer than that which you were seeking.
  3. Facts in a notebook are dead. You could keep reporting without end, but then, when would you write? There comes a time when any aspiring family history writer needs to stop researching and start writing. Prose on the page won’t happen until you start your story.
  4. Your earliest stories weren’t that good. Neither was your research. The lede was trite. The story was formulaic. Even the grammar wasn’t top-notch. And the first branches you filled in on the tree? With time and experience, you look back and realize you didn’t do as thorough a job as you intended. You’ve recorded the year of great-grandma’s marriage, and you haven’t the foggiest notion how you came to know it. There’s always room to amend and improve your work.
  5. Grammar matters. All it takes is a misplaced comma, a solecism (the correct “for all intents and purposes” becomes “for all intensive purposes”) for your reader to lose faith. If you can’t get the little stuff right, how can the reader trust you with the big stuff? Choose a style and stand by it. Don’t toggle. Just because you’re doing this for fun doesn’t mean you can dispense with what your English teacher taught you. A well constructed sentence, in newspaper or in family history, is a gift to yourself and your reader.
  6. You know just enough to get yourself into trouble. We’ve all heard the one about what happens when you ASSUME. In journalism, after you’ve blithely typed some detail about tax policy, electoral politics, road funding or what-have-you, without a source to verify it, your editor, your reader or your sources are happy to tell you how far from fact your little bit of knowledge has led you astray. This happens in family history, too. You think you know your grandmother’s maiden name. After you expend your energy barking up the wrong tree when it comes to her father’s surname, you are surprised to find her marriage to your grandfather was actually her second.
  7. You have to leave the office. You can Google all day, but the best stories happen when you venture out. Get out of your house. Go to your local Church of Latter-day Saints Family History Center and look at that census microfilm for yourself. Check out the local history room at your library. Take a detour on your next road trip to visit the cemetery your great-grandparents are buried in. Spend some time with a relative, really listening, and ask that person to show you the things that they consider important to the family story. Names and dates are the bones of a family history. You need to venture out to flesh them out. The joy is in the journey.
  8. Deviate from the plan. If you write out all your questions before the interview and stick to the script, you’ll squander serendipity. You’ll gloss over the interesting tidbit. You’ll write a story that fits the formula you started out imagining, and a much better tale will have slipped away. Don’t focus so narrowly on proving one thing that you miss the clues to another answer.
  9. Sometimes you’re a social darling. Other times, a social pariah. You’ll find this at any party: Someone thinks journalists are fascinating, and your madcap tales from the trenches bring guffaws and drink refills. Or there’s a lover of family history who wants to hear all about how you are a Catholic who can’t join the Huguenot Society even though your ancestors helped to found New Amsterdam because of a bit of persecution retribution. But more people think you, the journalist, are secretly quoting them. “Am I on the record?” And they imagine that one time that one guy was rude to them means you, by the transitive property of professions, are a jerk, too. Or your host politely nods when you launch into a family history anecdote while secretly dying inside. Again with this dead people business? Please, stop. In genealogy, as in journalism, know thy audience.
  10. This is a calling. Not everyone wants to delve the depths of their family history (and their spouse’s, their friends’, really anyone’s history mystery will do.) And not everyone thrills at asking questions of strangers, observing the world on the drive to work, spotting untold stories everywhere, finding satisfaction in pulling facts into form and making meaning out of memories. Genealogists and journalists don’t pursue their crafts for the big payday. Ask any 3 a.m. U.S. Census-combing family historian if genealogy is a calling. You’ll get a resounding yes. If you do this, you do it for the love.