From Warsaw to Detroit, forging ties through Journalism and Culture

Photo courtesy of Jakub Mejer

 

The following post was submitted by Jakub Mejer from Poland. He is an incoming fellow of the Central and Eastern European Journalism Program (CEEJ), which was postponed due to COVID-19. Until the fellows can resume in-person programming, they are participating in a webinar series and contributing to a Q&A blog series. This post is Part 10 in the blog series.

Photo of Jakub Mejer

What brought you to the area of journalism? What made you want to become a journalist? Is there someone that inspired you? Some time ago my friend from primary school told me, “You’ve always wanted to be a journalist.” For me it seemed that I always wanted to be a filmmaker, but getting into film school was so hard. Journalism seemed like an easier way to tell stories. And so it started. I don’t have any specific people that have inspired me, although I mostly read classic U.S. non-fiction (New Journalism, John McPhee, and so on), so that’s probably what shapes the way I write.

What content topics or mediums interest you and why?
I have experience mostly in writing digital and print journalism. I prefer writing features, although I’ve done my share of news reporting too. Right now I’m also working as a TV journalist, but my experience in the audiovisual field is very limited. In the stories I tell, I try to use trivia from science, culture, history and politics to tell a broader story. I draw inspiration from Jill Lapore’s features in The New Yorker (of course I don’t want to compare my work with hers, but the idea is somewhat similar), though in my opinion she sometimes goes too far in her conclusions. An example of my style is in the article I wrote for the “Pittsburgh Quarterly” which shows what life looks like in remote mountains on the border between Poland and Slovakia. It’s one of the few features I published in English, and I hope there will be more opportunities.

Why does journalism matter?
Without journalism it’s much harder to know what’s happening, both in the wider world and in your own backyard. We can see that the emergence of social media has drastically reduced the number of gatekeepers, and many people are now believing media that is biased and untrue and spreading debunked, false stories and conspiracy theories. And often people don’t even know that what they’re reading, watching or listening to is untrue.

What is your primary challenge as a journalist in your country?
The biggest challenge to journalists in Poland is the terms of employment in the media. It’s very hard to get a contract with benefits, healthcare and retirement funds. Most often you get what’s called a “trash” contract that does not provide any healthcare or paid holidays. That’s why many older people with experience are leaving journalism and younger journalists are deciding to change professions after only a couple of months in the field. People still working in journalism are tired and forced to work faster; they are prone to making more mistakes and sometimes use their skills to advance someone’s agenda, rather than tell the truth.

What is your current understanding of freedom of the press?
It really depends who you ask. According to reports by international watchdogs, freedom of the press is getting worse and worse in Poland. Many local NGOs and independent media outlets are saying the same thing. On the other hand, you have public media and pro-government organizations that are claiming that everything is fine, and that things are better than they were before. It’s definitely a very fragmented world, with bubbles of information and people that only talk to other people they know and like. Many organizations, even spokespersons for public offices, are only answering questions from media outlets that they are friendly with. When they get a tough question they may go to the “friendly” outlet to try to defuse the problem before the other media outlets are done with their reporting. Unfortunately, from what I see, similar things are happening in many other countries.

What is the one thing you are most looking forward to during your program in the U.S.?
While I’m a big fan of U.S. culture, I’ve never been in the U.S! I would like to see how the states look and how different or similar they are to the other parts of the world that I know. I know that this program will not be enough, but I’m sure it will be helpful to provide a better understanding of the country. I look forward to seeing places that are not the most common for people from Europe to visit. Europeans tend to visit the East and West coast, Chicago and a few landmarks — like Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. Michigan and Detroit are rarely on the visit list, and I think it will be interesting to see the U.S. from this lesser-known perspective.

What are some of the things that have colored your impression of the U.S.?
When I was participating in a foreign reporting workshop, a journalist told me that a good way to learn about a country is to introduce yourself to its pop culture. Of course, American culture is ubiquitous, so you don’t have to try very hard to find it. It’s much harder to find a Senegalese novel or Jordanian movie, for example. Right now I’m trying to focus on topics relevant to the regions where I’m scheduled to travel through this fellowship. I went to eat Detroit-style pizza in the only place in Warsaw that has it. I’m listening (more than usual) to Motown and Detroit Techno. I’m reading novels by Jim Harrison, Elmore Leonard and Donald Goines and more highbrow things like Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis and even some scientific articles about Detroit and the Midwest. Besides that I’m still watching, reading and listening to my usual fare of U.S. media.

What are you hoping to accomplish with this fellowship?
First of all, I hope to finally see the U.S. Although I understand that because of COVID-19 the fellowship is changing and the trip itself is getting delayed again and again, I hope it will finally come into fruition and we will see each other in a good time. Meanwhile, I’m trying to use the remote offerings of the fellowship as best as I can. While doing research about Detroit I’ve found an interesting story about a Polish resistance fighter from World War II who was killed tragically during riots in Detroit in 1975. I wrote about that for the weekend edition of Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, a leading national newspaper in Poland, around the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, in which this Polish resistance fighter was a participant. A couple of weeks after publishing my piece, the Polish resistance fighter’s grandson from Detroit wrote to me on LinkedIn. I was also able to write about the U.S. elections for Polityka, quoting two people from our CEEJ webinars, and another for an article about elections in Georgia, which was broadcasted on national news TV. I hope this fellowship will give me more contacts and opportunities to cooperate with the U.S. media.