The Reliability of Oral Histories–The Forensic Approach to Evaluation

Part 2 of a three-part series.  Part 1 is here.

When last we met, we explored the issues associated with the reliability of “eyewitness testimony” in court and applied similar concepts to first-person accounts of historical and genealogical events. We discovered several issues that might make “eyewitness testimony” unreliable. Now we explore the 21st century approach to eyewitness testimony and apply a forensic approach to first-party reporting of genealogical events.

California juries are now told by judges to apply certain factors in the evaluation of eyewitness evidence. These factors focus on the ability of the witness to perceive the event; circumstances which might interfere with the witness’s ability to remember and recollect; and the empirical corroboration of the witness’s evidence. See California Criminal Jury Instruction No. 315. This jury instruction points the way to a forensic approach to evaluating the reliability of oral histories.

Taking the forensic approach to oral history, the genealogist will want to consider the following:

  • How familiar was the reporter with any of the background circumstances or parties before the event?
  • How well could the reporter see, hear, and comprehend the event?
  • What were the circumstances affecting the reporter’s ability to observe, such as lighting, weather conditions, obstructions, distance, duration of observation, and any other relevant circumstances?
  • How well could the reporter see, hear, or otherwise perceive the event?
  • Was the reporter under any type of stress when he or she made the observation?
  • What was the interval of time between the reporter’s perception of the event and his or her report thereof?
  • What was the mode of interrogation of the reporter? (open-ended questions, suggestive questions, follow-up)
  • What was the demeanor of the interrogator? (hostile, aggressive, judgmental, or not?)
  • Is the reporter’s version substantially corroborated by credible independent evidence?
  • What is the level of the reporter’s cognitive development, that is, considering the person’s age, how well is he or she able to perceive, understand, remember, and communicate?
  • Did the reporter have a relationship with someone who, inadvertently or deliberately, could have influenced the reporter’s version of events?

Not every oral history will reveal all of these factors.  But as the evaluator, one is not expecting to find “proof  beyond a reasonable doubt” as would be the case in a courtroom.

As we have said here before, nothing can be “proven.” The evaluator must judge the credibility or believability of the oral history reporter. In deciding whether the oral evidence is true and accurate, evaluators should use common sense and experience.

Coming: Part III – Second or Third Party Reporting (“Hearsay”) in Oral Histories


July 2011
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