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Day 4 – In Depth Analysis

Day Four: In-depth analysis – if you got that once-in-a-lifetime story opportunity, how would you handle it?

Profile of Gertrude Grubb, a Civil War Widow
A once-in-a-lifetime feature opportunity

This feature story, a personality profile, was produced in 1998 by Knoxville News Sentinel writer Fred Brown. At the time, Gertrude was 89. She was also the only known Civil War widow remaining in Tennessee, one of 15 left in the nation.

Think about that for a moment. The American Civil War ended in 1865. This story was published 133 years later. Yet Gertrude had not only known a soldier from that war, she had married him.

What question springs immediately to mind?

What is the second question that comes to mind?

For me, the first was: How is that possible? The second: Why in the world would she have done that?

This is, truly, a once-in-a-lifetime story opportunity. Imagine you had this assignment. How would you handle it?

Fred Brown, a thoroughly experienced features writer, did a masterful job of researching, interviewing for and structuring this story. It’s told in a lyrical feature fashion and with great sensitivity and respect. It’s a long story, but we’re willing to stick through with him until the very end.

If you’ve not already done so, please stop and read the story now. As you do, think on this:

Sources: How did Brown get this story?
Structure: How did Brown give us more than 130 years of history in a way that is comfortable to comprehend, yet not in chronological order?
Sensitivity: How did Brown work with this isolated, fragile woman in order to get her story, to give respect to and do justice to her story?
Answers: Brown answers the one BIG question all readers will have in two ways. How does he do that?

Gertrude Grubb, the Civil War Widow

Please visit the discussion board to discuss the questions listed above. Please add other topics as you see fit. Tomorrow evening I’ll post a summary of our analysis as we wrap up the features workshop.

Discussion forum

 

DAY FOUR Summary: Discussion of the story

Sources: How did Brown get this story?

Brown used all three types of sources for his story:

•  Stored sources: To get the background material on the war, including troop movements, Brown must have used archival sources.

•  Observational sources: Brown takes us with him to Gertie’s cabin. We see her Mascots Solitaire wood stove, the single light fixture, and the photograph near her bed. We visit the community and see the gristmill and the cemetery where John Janeway/January was buried. We see Gertie’s reaction when he asks her a very important question at the end of the story. Despite clearly serving as our eyes and ears, Brown himself is never present in the story.

•   Interview sources: Brown doesn’t quote Gertie’s nephew, but it seems likely he got background information from him. He likely spent extensive time with Gertie herself – at least several hours. Some discussion board participants suggest he may have visited more than once. Rather than a formal “interview,” it seems more likely that Brown just sat and visited with Gertie. An isolated and frail woman, Gertie might have found that approach less intimidating. We actually “see” Brown ask her that one big question in the story’s end.
Structure: How did Brown give us more than 130 years of history in a way that is comfortable to comprehend, yet not in chronological order?

This had to be challenging. Brown gives us a lot of information and may well have had much more that he didn’t include. How to introduce this woman, give us a sense of a timeframe, include massive amounts of detail and move back and forth over a 130-year timeframe?

He begins by introducing us to Gertie in the present but giving us the sense that she might be living more so in the past. Once introductions are made, he takes us back in time to the day John Janeway went to war, giving his name as John January. Then we do move forward, chronologically, through John’s world, through his marriage to Gertie, until we find Gertie again in the present. The structure works very well. It’s easy to understand and follow; the place and time are always clear.
Sensitivity: How did Brown work with this isolated, fragile woman in order to get her story, to give respect to and do justice to her story?

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics admonishes journalists to “use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.” Gertrude Grubb certainly qualifies as inexperienced.

Brown does treat her with respect, not as a freak or an object of curiosity. How do we know? Brown wrote the story with that sort of sensitivity. And it’s very unlikely he could have gotten the detail and quotes he got if he had acted inappropriately.

He chooses terminology very carefully. He doesn’t tell us that she has lived a deprived life. He does tell us that she has never owned or driven an automobile and has spoken on a telephone only once in her life.

An interview technique used by most journalists is this: Ask the most difficult, intrusive questions last. There are two reasons for that.

•  If the interviewee doesn’t want to answer, at least you’ve already gotten all the other information you need.

•  Generally, interview subjects become more relaxed and comfortable with a journalist as they spend more time talking. A subject may answer a question with more candor toward the end of an interview.  More about this below.
Answers: Brown answers the one BIG question all readers will have in two ways. How does he do that?

Brown drops lots of hints along the way. Gertie loved her father and relied on his love and assistance in learning to walk. Her father was considerably older than her mother, so such a relationship would have seemed somewhat less strange to her than it does to us.

Gertie had a pronounced physical defect that limited her mobility at a place and time when extremely hard work was often necessary to survive. She had watched her mother struggle to support a family. Her mother “took to the wash tub” for 50 cents a day. John had a soldier’s pension. Gertie’s motives never appear calculating or mercenary. But John certainly did offer her security, and she understood what it meant to do without that.

Brown paints the picture very clearly, yet never draws the conclusions for us. That’s so very ethically correct from a journalistic standpoint.

He’s is the careful, modest journalist throughout. Even at the very end, when he asks her that final, necessary question, Brown is still obviously absent from the story. That part is so carefully crafted. We hear the question, and we’re dying to know the answer. He lets us sit right there with him. We see her and we hear her. And we believe.

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