As family historians, how can we write about ancestors in a way that is both honest and ethical?
After all, every family has a secret or a story that the current generation knows nothing about. Maybe an ancestor hid an early marriage or had some other hidden relationship . . . or committed a crime . . . or behaved in a manner considered, then or now, to be shameful or questionable or downright wicked.
Our genealogy research can turn up things that families never expected would be known. Especially if we want people to share stories and documents with us, I believe we have an obligation to use that information in a responsible way. It's a balancing act between the honesty we genealogists owe to future generations and the ethical responsibility we owe to those living today.
My personal approach is: If disclosing something about an ancestor would be truly harmful to someone living today, I don't write about it, either on my blog or in any "public" family history.
This has been a real issue only once in my 20 years of genealogy research. In that instance, I put the information into my private genealogy files so the story won't be lost forever. This allows me to be honest with future generations and act responsibly by avoiding potential damage today.
My "genealogical will" leaves my files to relatives who will safeguard them for the sake of descendants. Years from now, when these genealogical heirs sift through the files, they can weigh the consequences of disclosure in light of how much time has passed and whether anyone would be harmed if the story is told then, not now.
What do you think? Please share your thoughts on this delicate balancing act.