Essay: Notes from a greenhorn teacher

Gosia Wozniacka essay, Reflections

I occasionally write personal essays. They allow me to analyze and understand what I’m living through or seeing, to gather scraps of experience into a unifying whole. Essays leave vast space for storytelling; they tend to be more intimate. Maybe that’s why readers respond to them readily.

This past January, I suddenly transformed into a college professor. Over six months, I taught Journalism 101 and Digital Reporting (photojournalism, audio and video production). Teaching college journalism was an intense and absorbing experience. I enjoyed sharing my skills and stories with the students. But teaching, it turned out, was about a lot more than that. This month, as a guest blogger on the Rough and Rede blog, I write about those first months of teaching.

Read the essay here: Notes from a greenhorn teacher

Investigative Reporting: An escape from the Church

Gosia Wozniacka investigative

The man did not hesitate. He knew this single-aisle Gothic church with a slender tower. It was here he was baptized and attended mass as a child. The old priest was hearing confessions in the confessional. When he finished, the man followed him.
“I know you,” the parish priest smiled benignly. At the office, he pointed to a chair, then reached for the glass armoire behind his desk. He pulled out a voluminous Book of Baptisms and quickly browsed through it.
“Maciej Psyk… I can’t find your last name. Nothing can be done.”
“But that’s impossible. Can I have a look?”
The priest passed the book to him. On large, withered pages, columns of dates and names of newborns, parents, and godparents were recorded chronologically. Each column included the creed: Roman Catholic. Psyk’s name was nowhere to be found. He stood up, thanked the priest and left. It was July 2008. (…) 

So begins my five-month investigation into how the Polish Catholic Church, with the blessings of the Polish government, has circumvented and abused data protection and privacy laws. The story was produced as part of my residency with the Polish Institute of Reportage, a program focused on long-form & literary journalism.  Though I can’t translate the whole piece – it’s pretty long – here are some of the highlights: 

A month after arriving in Poland, I read an article that sparked my curiosity: the Polish Catholic Church had just simplified its procedure for apostasy, by way of which a person can renounce or leave the church. 

I was intrigued, to say the least. Religion is an integral part of the Polish cultural and social landscape; it permeates and shapes everything, from architecture to values to relationships. The Catholic Church is also very much involved – and often actively interferes — in national politics. That this Church would let members of its flock leave with such ease was fascinating and somewhat suspicious.

As I started doing research, I realized there was a lot more to this story. The church was, in fact, promoting apostasy – essentially a meaningless procedure, since under canonical law baptism cannot be erased – to counter a wave of dissenters who had decided to leave the church with the help of secular law. They had been baptized as children, but no longer believed in God and/or disagreed with the Church’s meddling in politics. And, like my main character Maciej Psyk (who opens the story), they wanted to be removed from church registers. 

For six years, they fought so that the secular law – Poland’s Personal Data Protection Act – would be deemed more important than canonical law. Hundreds of cases were filed in the Polish courts, and continue to be filed. This litigation campaign is partly based on a similar approach in Italy, where former Catholics won (also through the courts) the option of leaving the Church under secular law – the Italian Data Protection Act. Italians no longer need to follow the religious procedure of apostasy to leave the church. Instead, they can just send a letter to their parish priest, who must make note that they’ve left the church for good. Similar campaigns have also been successful in France, Belgium, and Spain. 

In Poland, things didn’t go so smoothly. In short: parish priests and the Church leadership hired lawyers to fight the lawsuits. The cases went through the appeals process. For the first few years, the court declined to honor the country’s secular law, arguing that canonical law had a higher standing. Once the cases reached the Supreme Administrative Court, there was a breakthrough. The judges ruled on the side of secular law: “Leaving the church should be considered only on the basis of secular law,” they wrote, “because it concerns the freedom of conscience and religion and the protection of personal data, ie. the fundamental rights of citizens.” After that, the Polish agency in charge of personal data ordered hundreds of parish priests to note in their Books of Baptisms that their parishioners had left the church. 

Many of the priests refused to follow those orders, and government officials didn’t interfere. And within three years, the higher court reversed its own decision and gave cannonical law the upper hand. No one knows exactly why. It could be that the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) had just won the election and the Church was one of its closest allies. Whatever the reasons, the verdicts uncovered a state that the Polish government did not wish to admit: that the separation between Church and State isn’t yet a full reality in Poland. 

And why, you may wonder, is data protection important for churches? Well, for one, churches now use complex online databases to store myriad information about their parishioners. Churches in Poland also sometimes post names of parishioners who didn’t pay church dues, for example. They also use the total number of parishioners in Poland to get government subsidies and other perks. 

It was fascinating and challenging to report this story. I pored over hundreds of pages of litigation, sat in on several cases in Warsaw, interviewed in person half a dozen participants throughout Poland, spoke to countless experts and lawyers, read government documents, etc. I loved reporting in Polish, my native language. One challenge was to use the techniques of narrative writing to write a story that concerned hundreds of court files. To do this, I chose several characters and told the story through their personal lives and legal cases. I think this was a great approach. 

If you read Polish and don’t have paid access to Gazeta Wyborcza, here’s a PDF of the story. 

Essay: The Memory Keeper

Gosia Wozniacka essay, Reflections

I would like to share a very personal essay I wrote as a guest blogger for the Rough and Rede blog. It’s part of a series of original essays published on that blog every summer. My essay looks at the current migration crisis through the lens of a long-ago refugee. Much time has passed since I left communist Poland with my family, and I can now tell with certainty that the costs of displacement are steep, sometimes damaging. And yet, we move forward, we change and grow. We must.  

You can read it here: The Memory Keeper, a letter to new refugees

 

Roseburg shooting, stories

Gosia Wozniacka AP STORIES

During the week in Roseburg following the shooting, I was part of an AP team that included several reporters, videographers, and photographers. Covering a mass shooting is easier when you’re part of a great team of journalists. We produced multiple stories, too many to list, but here are a few I worked on that stood out.

Our dramatic narrative retelling of the shooting: Oregon shooter showed little sympathy in calculated killings Roseburg shooting narrative

A Sunday story on churches’ response to shooting: Pastor’s sermon: ‘Violence will not have the last word’ Pastor’s sermon story

And an important story about mothers, guns and mental health: Mother-son bond over guns links Oregon, Connecticut slayings Mother-son bonds  

Roseburg mass shooting

Gosia Wozniacka AP PHOTOS, AP STORIES, Reflections

Events like the Roseburg UCC college shooting are always difficult to cover. As a reporter, you work like a machine, 12 hour days on auto-pilot, and your emotions and exhaustion only catch up with you later. What’s most difficult is having to approach families whose world just collapsed. How to journalistically cover a tragedy like a mass shooting and still be a decent human being? I don’t have a good answer, I don’t know if it is possible — but some moments give me hope that it is.

Most families affected by the shooting don’t want to speak with reporters, and there are dozens if not hundreds of reporters trying to call on them, to intrude on their grieving. It feels exploitative and invasive. But we have to do our jobs. I try to approach the families with respect, imagining what it would be like if I was in their shoes. What gives my job meaning is the families or individuals who do want to share their stories. They tell them in great detail. And you can sense that the telling of the story is cathartic, that in recounting events they are trying to understand and order their world again, to honor those who were hurt or who are gone. Their stories help us all grieve.

This was the case when my colleague and I interviewed for AP Video a pastor whose daughter miraculously (and that is not an overstatement) survived the deadly rampage inside the UCC classroom. We were the first to interview pastor Randy Scroggins. He sat near the altar at New Beginnings Church in Roseburg and told us in excruciating detail what his daughter witnessed during the shooting and how she was saved by a classmate who had rolled onto her after being shot, soaking her with his blood. Because her clothes were bloodied, the shooter likely thought she was dead and shot everyone else around her instead.

My body contracted and eyes filled as the pastor recounted the story, and later when he took a phone call from that classmate’s mother. He sobbed while talking to her, then leaned for several minutes against the church wall and continued to weep. And though the imagery of being saved by blood was too strong to miss inside a Christian church, that morning the father trembling over his daughter’s life was more present than the pastor. I was grateful for his story, not just as a reporter but as a person.

(watch the AP video here

Wildfires’ impact on rangeland

Gosia Wozniacka AP STORIES

Wildfires exploded this summer in the Pacific Northwest. Thousands of acres were scorched. I wondered: whose land had actually burned? A lot of the land that was engulfed in flames was isolated forest, grassland, hillsides. To whom did the land belong? Then I started hearing about ranchers losing their grazing allotments in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho and knew I had a story.

The vast majority of the fire-affected land was federally-owned… U.S. Forest Land, BLM Land, etc. How much of it was grazing grounds? You see, the U.S. government leases its land to ranchers across the country. This practice is especially popular in the West. Ranchers pay a small fee, and they’re allowed to run their cattle on remote federally-owned mountains and hillsides. Cows and calves share the land with the wild species. Ranchers, in turn, help with conservation efforts on the land.

Allotment grazing is a controversial practice. Environmentalists say cattle grazing destroys the land, especially near streams where riparian habitat is fragile. Ranchers, of course, say they have grazed the land for generation and are good stewards of it. In recent years, there’s been a growing practice of “conservation grazing” – using cattle to graze in prescribed ways to mimic what deer once did, as a way to get rid of invasive species and keep the fuels low in case of wildfires. Some environmentalists don’t agree with this practice, while others support it. All this to explain that grazing is prevalent on remote federal lands.

Knowing this, I figured ranchers must have suffered a lot in these fires. My AP colleague wrote about the impacts of wildfires on wildlife, including the sage grouse and other species. So I tackled the other side of the equation. It was difficult to track down exactly how much of the federal land was leased as so-called grazing allotments, but I was able to interview a good number of ranchers, forest managers, and grazing specialists at the federal agencies to get a solid grasp on this. In a few cases, I got specific acreage, and in others estimates. Here is the story link and the PDF: AP-Wildfire Ranchers

Not Portlandia

Gosia Wozniacka AP PHOTOS, AP STORIES

For a long time, I have wanted to write a story about a different Portland – not the hip, popular Portland of pricey artisan lattes and overgrown facial hair, but a hidden part of town where immigrants, refugees, and low-income people live: East Portland. I have lived in East Portland for several years now and have watched it change and grow into a mix of Mexican, Somali, Burmese, other immigrants, African-Americans, and working class whites. As I witnessed my neighborhood’s transformation, I grew very tired of the stereotypes featured in the show Portlandia.

Finally, a news hook materialized: East Portlanders are seeking greater representation and an overhaul of at-large elections because they feel neglected by city hall. In addition to the main story, I also reported a series of mini-profiles, so that I could better describe the lives of those who live here. The story and profiles got a great run online in The New York Times, The Washington Post and many other websites. You can read the main story here: AP Big Story link or here in in PDF: AP-East Portland. And the vignettes profiles are here or here in PDF: AP-East Portland-Profiles.

Lamprey harvest

Gosia Wozniacka AP PHOTOS, AP STORIES

OREGON CITY — They dove into the cold waters, emerging with writhing, eel-like fish in hand and thrusting them into nets.

Thus began Northwest Native American tribes’ annual lamprey harvest at a rushing, 40-foot waterfall about 15 miles south of Portland. The jawless, gray fish are a traditional food source for tribal members in the Columbia River Basin… Read More

In this Friday, June 12, 2015 photo, Native Americans catch lamprey, eel-like fish, at Willamette Falls, a 40-foot waterfall south of Portland, Oregon. An ancient fish that's a source of food for tribes in the Pacific Northwest, lampreys have been in drastic decline in recent decades. (AP/Gosia Wozniacka)

In this Friday, June 12, 2015 photo, Native Americans catch lamprey, eel-like fish, at Willamette Falls, south of Portland, Oregon. An ancient fish that’s a source of food for tribes in the Pacific Northwest, lampreys have been in drastic decline in recent decades. (AP/Gosia Wozniacka)

(AP/Gosia Wozniacka)

Tribes Lamprey Harvest

In this Friday, June 12, 2015 photo, Native Americana catch lamprey, eel-like fish, at Willamette Falls near Oregon City. An ancient fish that's a source of food for tribes in the Pacific Northwest, lampreys have been in drastic decline in recent decades. (AP/Gosia Wozniacka)

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Tribes Lamprey Harvest

Tribes Lamprey Harvest

In this Friday, June 12, 2015 photo, a Native American fisherman passes a burlap sack full of lampreys, eel-like fish, at the rocks at Willamette Falls, a 40-foot waterfall south of Portland, Oregon. Northwest Native American tribes began harvesting the lampreys this week.(AP/Gosia Wozniacka)

In this Friday, June 12, 2015 photo, a Native American fisherman passes a burlap sack full of lampreys, eel-like fish, at the rocks at Willamette Falls, a 40-foot waterfall south of Portland, Oregon. (AP/Gosia Wozniacka)

 

Obama, Nike and outsourcing

Gosia Wozniacka AP PHOTOS, AP STORIES

Well, President Obama came to Portland, and it’s been fun. The goal of his visit: to make a speech at Nike headquarters touting a trade deal with Asian nations – the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP – in an effort to garner some much needed political support. Nike is an interesting choice of location, given that some critics are afraid the TPP will lead to jobs going overseas and labor violations. A fellow reporter and I wrote a story looking at Nike’s track record in those areas. Read the story at the link here, and PDF here: AP-Obama Nike

As a side note, it’s been fascinating watching this presidential visit. Obama is a star and receives star treatment. People go into a frenzy when they see him. The presidential airplane is a behemoth. His speech is a show. The president waves, shakes hands. Even reporters get excited. Given these high emotions and the way a presidential appearance is carefully “packaged”, it’s hard to know what objectivity means and whether people (aka fans) ever question the policy issues.

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AP STORY: Adoptee U.S. citizenship

Gosia Wozniacka AP PHOTOS, AP STORIES

I learned about Adam and his story from a source in the Korean-American community. Interviewing Adam took six hours and was emotionally wrenching. He is an intelligent, eloquent man who has faced big hurdles in his life. He’s also screwed up some. He has many emotional wounds, but he’s also trying to make amends and reimagine his future. Adam’s story opened to me a world I knew little about: that of adoptees, the often-questionable history of out-of-country adoptions, and the immigration laws that left adoptees behind. I easily could have written a great magazine piece about these issues and the stories of Adam and others like him… AP’s 800-word format didn’t do this story justice. But here is the short version, in PDF: AP-Adoptees Citizenship. 

I was, by the way, the first reporter to break this story. After that, Adam became a media sensation. 

In this photo taken on Thursday, March 19, 2015, Korean adoptee Adam Crapser poses with his daughters, 1-year-old Christal and 5-year-old Christina, and his wife Anh Nguyen in the family's living room in Vancouver, Wash. Crapser, whose adoptive parents neglected to make him a U.S. citizen, will face an immigration judge in April and could be separated from his family and deported to South Korea, a country he does not know. (AP Photo/Gosia Wozniacka)

In this photo taken on Thursday, March 19, 2015, Korean adoptee Adam Crapser poses with his daughters, 1-year-old Christal and 5-year-old Christina, and his wife Anh Nguyen in the family’s living room in Vancouver, Wash. Crapser, whose adoptive parents neglected to make him a U.S. citizen, will face an immigration judge in April and could be separated from his family and deported to South Korea, a country he does not know. (AP Photo/Gosia Wozniacka)

(AP Photo/Gosia Wozniacka)

(AP Photo/Gosia Wozniacka)