7 Polish Reporters that Upheld & Improved the Morals of Journalism
Journalists strive to tell the stories of events but also, more importantly, people. Throughout their careers, these Polish journalists exemplified the standards of journalistic excellence while constantly innovating the story-telling medium for journalists all over the world.
From 1951 to 1955, Hanna Krall studied journalism in her home town at Warsaw University. After joining the team of the weekly Polityka, she travelled across the Soviet Union writing reportages which formed her book debut To the East of Arbat (1972). In 1976, the publishing house Odra issued her most famous book – a reportage about Marek Edelman titled Shielding the Flame.
Krall writes about people who want to be with her and with whom she wants to be, often having a sole reader in mind when she writes. As she says, they entrust her to report on their lives hoping that she’ll understand. At the same time, she admits that sometimes the fates of these people are too complicated for her. Her style also includes episodes from her own life, however these episodes are written in the third person perspective. Her personal tone and connection to her subject puts her at the top of Polish reporters.
Jacek Hugo-Bader became a reporter in 1990 for the popular Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. After losing his previous job during martial law, he interviewed for a journalist position at the paper where he was asked to describe what he saw in the interview office. He was offered the job the next day. Since then, he has become one of the most valued Polish reporters covering the former USSR countries. He spent four years in total travelling through Middle Asia, the Gobi Desert, China and Tibet on his bicycle.
His willingness to travel to far off places for stories, such as going to the Urals without knowing Russian to interview the inventor of the Kalashnikov machine gun, or speaking with veterans of the Afghan War for his book In the Paradise Valley among the Weeds, translates beautifully thanks to his tone. Hugo-Bader’s reportage shows how stories require dedication and interest to be told well for an audience.
Wojciech Tochman debuted as a journalist in 1987 with a reportage about a school locker room. Two years later, he published his first article in Gazeta Wyborcza, under the supervision of Hanna Krall. Now, he covers stories first hand from the most conflict-ridden parts of the world. His books portraying people in critical situations have been translated into English, French, German, Italian, Swedish, Finnish, Russian and Bosnian. Tochman’s greatest achievement is the book titled Like Eating a Stone – it covers the period in the Balkans when both sides had already laid down their arms but peoples’ memories of the carnage were still vivid, and the wounds hadn't yet healed.
Tochman is far from calling his profession a mission. On the contrary, such grand words disturb him. To him, the reporter’s role is not to be a wise man, but to wonder about the world and pose questions. This kind of approach seemingly comes from his mentor Krall. He feels responsible for those he writes about, and for their emotions. He is very much aware that there are questions that cannot and should not be asked, because they can open up barely-healed wounds. His attention to his subjects as people and not simply quotes for a piece allows him to report on conflict-ridden areas accurately and insightfully.
After discovering the works of Ernest Hemingway in primary school, Wojciech Jagielski found he had a passion for writing. He majored in African studies and after travelling to the continent, he understood that the AIDS plague and massacres are but a fragment of the local reality. In 1991 Jagielski started to work in the foreign department of Gazeta Wyborcza. When the Polish immigrant Janusz Waluś assassinated Chris Hani, the leader of the communist opposition in South Africa and most likely successor to Nelson Mandela, the newspaper swiftly sent Jagielski over to investigate. He has since written many books about Asian and African countries.
Jagielski calls himself 'a member of a dying species, a mammoth'. He claims that expertise was required of journalists in the past. But today, when articles have become much shorter, too much knowledge constitutes a problem, an unnecessary encumbrance. 'Narrow' specialisations are also an obstacle. His journalistic breed cares about in-depth reports and his contributions to reports on lesser-covered areas will continue to drive journalism towards its quest for truth.
Małgorzata Szejnert graduated from the Faculty of Journalism at the University of Warsaw in 1958. She was head of the reportage section of the Literatura weekly. After 13th December 1981, the day martial law was imposed, she joined in the boycott of official media. She worked for opposition newspapers and wrote reports at the Institute of Psychoneurology in Warsaw. In 1984, with Tomasz Zalewski, she published Szczecin: Grudzień, Sierpień, Grudzień, a book about the rebellious coastal region. She was among the founders of Gazeta Wyborcza and ran its reportage section for nearly 15 years.
Szejnert’s attention to the introduction of a reportage shows how detail-oriented she is as a reporter. She believes the first sentence is extremely important for a text – if it’s good, everything else will follow. For Szejnert, rhythm is extremely important. That’s why she has a book's narrative arc and its division into chapters planned in advance. Her prose is economical and restrained, with each sentence being carefully chiselled and properly set.
Teresa Torańska was born in 1944 in Vawkavysk and studied law at Warsaw University. In the 1970s she worked with the weekly Kultura. Afterwards, she published her articles in the international press (Granta, L'Osservatore Romano, New York's Nowy Dziennik). In 2000-2011, she worked for Duży Format, a reportage supplement to the Gazeta Wyborcza. Her most important book is Them: Stalin's Polish Puppets (1985), a collection of interviews with communist dignitaries about their role in building the Polish People's Republic. The book has entered the canon of obligatory readings at many universities all over the world.
Torańska was a perfectionist who meticulously prepared each interview and polished it for many days afterwards. She was always deeply saddened by the dishonesty of people who treated the journalism profession carelessly. She also believed journalists shouldn’t avoid difficult subjects when reporting because that’s how they continually push themselves to dig through stories to find the universal truths in their reportage.
Born in Pińsk (now part of Belarus), Ryszard Kapuściński got his journalistic start with domestic stories like most reporters. From there, he took off, reporting on several dozen wars, coups and revolutions in America, Asia, and especially in Africa, where he witnessed the liberation from colonialism. His work abroad has earned him the title of one of Poland’s most prolific non-fiction writers. After establishing himself as a world-class reporter, Kapuściński dedicated most of his time in the 1970s to writing books closer to novels for his readers. His best-known book is just such a reportage-novel of the decline of Haile Selassie's anachronistic regime in Ethiopia: The Emperor.
Kapuściński’s reportage style was deeply rooted in his lack of fear about his dangerous surroundings. Instead, he was profoundly fascinated with them, braving malaria, civil war and face-to-face encounters with ruthless dictators to get to the heart of a story. His in-depth accounts of global crises and events include research on centuries of conflict to find the true cause of civil and political strife in a region of interest. His work as a reporter is simultaneously authentic, informative and touching.