The Reliability of Oral Histories Considered

[Music; loud with fast, heavy beat]

[Baritone voice with emergency pace and tone]:“Eyewitness News! The [Valley’s][Metroplex’s][Tri-State Area’s][Ark-La-Tex’s][Bay Area’s][Central Coast’s][Middle Tennessee’s] Most Reliable Newscast! With the entire Eyewitness News Team! This is Eyewitness News at Six [o’clock]!”

That voicer (or words and music to that effect) has been heard on television stations all over America at one time or another in the last fifty years. See here, here, and here, for example. Indeed, if broadcast journalism is the cinema verite B-roll of history [sorry, inside gag and obscure esoteric reference], what could be better than “Eyewitness News”?

Likely, the lead story on Eyewitness News At Six, wherever in the country it may be broadcast, is a crime story. The reporter doing the standup at the court house or police station will report eagerly (but enthusiastically) that “Channel 7 has learned that there are two eyewitnesses to the crime,” or will lament in grave tones that “Police tell Channel 4 that there were no eyewitnesses.”

The genealogical equivalent of “Eyewitness News” is the oral history. And since genealogy is history, what could be better than the oral rendition of an eyewitness?

But both broadcast journalists and genealogists should take heed of what sophomore psych majors and first-year law students learn about eyewitnesses: they are notoriously unreliable.

A demonstration that has become an hoary chestnut among law professors and their counterparts in the psych department involves a surprise intrusion into the classroom by an individual who “assaults” the prof or steals her purse and runs out in a matter of a minute, if not seconds. Students are then asked to identify the “perp” by physical description or clothing worn; or to relate the sequence of the event.

Of course, both of you who had the misfortune to see Wink Martindale’s game show Instant Recall more than once, and all of you smarter than a fifth grader (mutually exclusive categories), have guessed already that the students have wildly divergent and largely inaccurate accounts of the event.

Millions of trees have given their lives to printing of scientific studies that show eyewitness testimony to be unreliable. Elizabeth Loftus, Ph.D, a pyschologist who is a professor in three research departments and the Law School at University of California, Irvine, has written extensively in this area. In her ground-breaking book, Eyewitness Testimony, first published in 1979, Loftus asserts that evidence from eyewitnesses has resulted in wrongful convictions and even wrongful executions in the criminal justice system. Her work and that of others had such a profound effect that, for a time, juries in many states were instructed to view eyewitness testimony “with caution.”  This was said to be necessary because of an odd paradox about eyewitness testimony: it was the most unreliable evidence in the abstract, yet at the same time, the most compelling for jurors.  Loftus demonstrated that factors such as the time between the event and the rendition by the witness, the mode of interrogation, reinforcement by other witnesses, and assimilation of another’s account, bear heavily on the accuracy of eyewitness testimony.

Given this scientific and legal skepticism, what implications are raised by first-person accounts of historical and genealogical events?

First of all, let’s agree that there are differences between an eyewitness who attempts to identify a criminal suspect, and a first-person reporter of an historical event. The crime witness is often questioned under unfavorable circumstances by hostile interrogators who may have their own theories of the case. There are deadlines to be met. The witness may be under the emotional stress of the event. The stakes are high and the pressure to “get it right” may lead some eyewitnesses to get it wrong. There may be a dozen times a hundred other unique factors at play concerning the reliability of eyewitness testimony in a criminal case or even a civil lawsuit.

But now let’s examine the similarities between the crime witness and the first-person historical reporter. The evidence given by both frequently relies on previously unrecorded and non-contemporaneous human memory. Some of the same factors which may affect “eyewitness” crime reporting may also affect oral history. These include the demeanor and behavior of the interrogator and the states of mind of the witness both at the time of the event and the time of reporting. The interval between event and report, stress, and overly suggestive questions may also affect both types of rendition.

Every experienced genealogist knows, and every beginning genealogist will soon know, of first-person renditions that are simply wrong. This doesn’t happen maliciously, usually; often it is the result of fading memories or time-embellished memories or of the mind supplying its own details to make sense of a complicated situation.

I’ve heard stories from people who would swear they are telling it like it was, only later to discover that the person was not even alive at the time of the reported event. I myself for years gave a first hand version of having observed a tornado that touched down in Missouri in 1955 or 1956, while my mother was hanging laundry on the clotheslines in our backyard. Oh, I was there alright and have a vivid “memory” of the event–the sky turning black and green, the winds suddenly swirling about, the frightening sounds as the funnel cloud approached. But I eventually came to question whether I had a “true” memory of that storm. Under more dispassionate analysis, I have concluded that my “recollection” of the event has been substantially influenced by my mother’s account of it, which, at some point in my childhood, I adopted as my own. [Among the factors which led me to question my own memory of this occurrence were that I cannot, of independent memory, account for the whereabouts of my younger brother; I do not recall at all how we got out of harm’s way; beyond remembering–if that’s what you want to call it–that I was sitting on a step at the back door, I cannot describe the house, important because we lived in two different counties in Missouri during 1955-56; and I have had a difficult time finding contemporaneous reports of the event during the time frame that I “recall” that it occurred].

How does the genealogist or historian evaluate oral history then? We can avoid the traps of the path the law first took: i.e., subjecting all eyewitness evidence to scrutiny so strict that it was more often fatal in fact. 

Next in Part II: The Forensic Approach to Evaluating Oral History






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July 2011
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