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.