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Open Thread Thursday: Does Celebrity Genealogy Mean Sloppy Research?

open thread

This week’s topic for Open Thread Thursday is:

Is there something about the cult of celebrity and researching their roots that makes for strange bedfellows when you mix famous folks and genealogy? While we as genealogists love the media exposure, do we sometimes pursue it to our own detriment and in a way that harm’s our field?

Do we as genealogists sometimes throw reason and good research practices out the window in order to be affiliated with a television show or a story? Is there pressure to come up with a story that doesn’t exist or to stitch together evidence to reach a conclusion that doesn’t meet the Genealogical Proof Standard or even qualify as a reasonably exhaustive search?

Or is it more a matter of a media industry which does not fully understand genealogy and family history research? In this age of the quick sound bite, does the media “dumb down” what we do and seeks out a story that really isn’t there or a story to fit a desired conclusion?

Have you had your own encounters with the media involving your own research or some aspect of genealogy? Tell us about your experience and what you think celebrity genealogy does for the genealogy industry.

Post your responses in the comments or at a post on your own genealogy blog and place the link here in the comments.

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I can be as big a fame whore as the next person – there is something special about personally talking with the stars or the producers of Who Do You Think You Are? You get giddy, you tell friends and colleagues, you somehow think it makes you special. But it doesn’t make you a better genealogist.

And I think that researching the roots of the famous is not the issue here – it is hasty and sloppy research that doesn’t follow the Genealogical Proof Standard combined with a basic lack of understanding about genealogy from the media as well as the general public.

But even when the standards are followed, care should be taken when dealing with the media in relating evidence and a conclusion, especially when those “wiggle” words are used.  In the recent case of politician Elizabeth Warren’s supposed Cherokee roots and the recent involvement with the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), I truly believe that sound research was in practice and in process. See Garance Franke-Ruta’s excellent article at The Atlantic (Is Elizabeth Warren Native American or What?) for an overview of the controversy.

But, most of the media ignored the “qualified” answer as well as those wiggle words and ran with a story while the research was still being undertaken. This is why it can be better sometimes to not present a “half time” view of research until a reasonably exhaustive search is done and the results can be presented as a whole. There are times when I think it would be nice to be part of a “hot” story, but as I evolve in my genealogy career, very often I find myself putting the brakes on my involvement in order to stop a “run away” story that can take on a life of its own. And with today’s marriage of traditional media and social media, that is one fast moving train that often can’t be stopped or steered effectively.

Another example is the recent broadcast of Who Do You Think You Are? involving Jason Sudeikis and his alleged bigamist great-grandfather. As you can see in a recent discussion over at a new blog, The Lineal Arboretum,  there is a lot more research involved than what was shown in the episode. Perhaps as genealogists we use a much more critical eye when research results are presented in such shows, and we should. Again, in 42 minutes, a television show is going to make it all look so easy.

This approach does bring newcomers to the field of genealogy and we all seem to benefit – professional genealogists, genealogy vendors and even genealogy societies.  But often it can be quite a bit of work to “undo” the mindset that arrives with the newcomers, and convince them that genealogy is not “magic.” Genealogy is a process which has research standards and an industry with professionals committed to those standards.

Sometimes I wonder if having the media spotlight on genealogy is not just more trouble than its worth but harmful to the industry. Or perhaps we as genealogists just need bigger voices when it comes to the media and we need to start controlling the conversation.


This is a great topic for this week’s Open Thread Thursday! And please, if you have a topic you’d like to see discussed among your genealogy blogging colleagues, please contact us and we’ll take it under consideration.

Disclosure:  Please see Disclosure Statements for more information on my material connection with genealogy vendors and organizations.

©2012, copyright Thomas MacEntee

4 thoughts on “Open Thread Thursday: Does Celebrity Genealogy Mean Sloppy Research?

  1. There’s a lot that can be said on this topic, but one aspect that stands out to me this this: I think that part of the problem isn’t in the research, but the editing. I don’t think that whoever is in charge of editing the episode down, deciding what clips make it into the final show, really understand that they should be proving the story that they present. This shows up in little things, like presenting a newspaper clipping and not giving the name of the newspaper, to simply saying “we found this fact, let’s move on” to dropping “plots” before concluding them (I’m looking at you Eddie Falco’s episode! Is the son dead or not? When/why did she become a nun? Etc..). I don’t think that the editors/producers (whoever – I don’t know who makes these decisions) realizes that there are so many people out there watching who want the details and will research a show on their own time to figure it out.

    They are bound by time constraints and a desire for good ratings, which can create understandable limitations. Why don’t they do a supplementary website that provides much of the research to those that are interested. They can save time on the show and make more genealogists happy.

  2. Have to comment as a genealogy librarian here. you are right on about the issue being not so much about celebrity lineages but how the work is done! During the first season of WDYTYA, I watched every episode because there would be a reference question about it the next day – not the celebrity, but the records that were researched. There was much more focus on records and collections than this last season. Once records stopped being explained, the genealogy of the celebrity appeared less credible.

    During the second and more so in the third season we saw more of an increase in people asking about genealogy and how to get started. Many of them started with but were confused by how to search and how to find records (many did not understand the census yet). So I think the show did a good job of getting people to with the mindset that Ancestry had everything. It gave those with a genealogy interest a place to start and grow from. During the learning process many of them figured out the limitations of Ancestry on their own. That’s when we see many of them going to the public library.

    I agree jumping up and down and yelling loudly that genealogy needs a BIG voice in the conversation with media! The big problem is getting the attention of the media and providing a clear and concise statement about what genealogy is and what genealogists do.

  3. I think that the thing WDYTYA accomplished was getting people to the dessert of genealogy. That moment when you are standing on the family homestead from generations before. That moment when you see the photo or read the full story and FEEL your ancestor. Those moments are difficult to convey and yet WDYTYA did a great job of that. And once they get a taste of the dessert, they’ll stay at the table and we can then teach them the food pyramid.

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