Justyna Suchecka is the Evens Journalism Prize 2021 | Education laureate. Her work builds accessible narratives around education policy, connecting local perspectives and experiences to national and international policy. We spoke to Suchecka about the importance of education to the future of Europe, giving teachers an educators a voice through journalism, and how she became a specialist reporter.
How important is education reporting in connecting the local experience to the wider European experience?
We are facing the enormous migration crisis caused by the war in Ukraine. Education as a social policy will not stop this and possibly future wars, but it is certainly the only way to build a society of peace and unity. European countries have varied experiences in educating groups at risk of exclusion - including foreigners and refugees. Only well-planned education for everyone can guarantee a good future for Europe.
In Europe, we have a lot of data, research, new practice, and educational experts. We should treat the issue of education not as a national issue, but as a European one. As a common good. I believe in the role of journalism in helping to multiply this good.
What drew you towards reporting on education as a subject?
It was 2011 and a total accident. My boss at the time decided that since I was the youngest in the team (I was 24), I could still remember what it was like to be at school and I would be able to tell our readers about it.
I quickly discovered that education is not only a field that really interests readers of the local newspaper (many of them have children or know someone who has children), but also me. It gives you an opportunity to change the world. And I know how grandiloquent it sounds but… that is just the way it is. I believe that education is a social policy that allows states to plan a better future for their citizens. Writing about that gave me a chance to fight for it.
The Evens Journalism Prize jury has particularly highlighted your creative approach to reporting. What do you think makes your approach different and why is this important for you?
I try to show education as a multi-threaded story. It is not just a history of ministers, ordinances and laws. It is not just tests, grades and scores. Rather, it is a story of the relationship between students, teachers, and parents.
In order to get a good grasp of the topic of education, you have to constantly learn and put aside your own experiences. I've been lucky with teachers all my life, but does that mean they all have teachers like that? No. On the other hand, it is easy to forget that in Poland, education is an industry that employs over 600,000 people. It's more than an "education system" with thousands of individual stories.
The editor of my latest book wrote that I am "a friend of young people and an ally of teachers". I hope it is true, because I believe that this direct approach makes my job better.
Another aspect of your work recognised by the prize is the way you integrate the experiences of educators into your work. How do you build trust with your subjects and find voices who are willing to share their experiences?
It is impossible to describe the education system without the voice of the teachers and educators. They are responsible for the future of the country, the prosperity of society, and the upbringing of children. I think my consistent faith in this (demonstrated in articles and comments) is what builds trust. My interlocutors know that for me it is not only a popular topic in the media, but something that I write about regularly, broadening my own and readers' perspectives.
I am not afraid of criticism. I respond to comments on my texts, I can admit my mistakes and that someone changed my opinion with good arguments. I believe educators appreciate it. They see that I am learning, and I am trying to teach them as well — looking for the best educational examples from Poland and the world.
Can you tell us a bit about your path into journalism?
I am a girl from a small town Witnica (7,000 people) in the west of Poland. As a teenager I wrote my first articles and stories for a local newspaper Wiadomości Witnickie. But back then I didn’t think about myself as a future journalist. It was more like a hobby or something you can do in your spare time in such a small town. It gave me the opportunity to meet new people.That was all I needed - then and now.
When I graduated from high school, even though I consider myself as a humanist, I decided to study economics. And guess what — I chose to specialise in public relations. As a future wanna-be PR specialist I needed to complete an internship in media. I got a place in the local department of Gazeta Wyborcza, the biggest daily newspaper in Poland. And somehow from the very beginning I knew that it was my dream job. I finished economics and worked there simultaneously. From that first day in the real newsroom I just know that it was meant to be.
Who has been your biggest inspiration or most important mentor and why?
For many years, my greatest inspiration was not someone from the journalism industry. It was my mom. A person who taught me consistency, diligence and that I can make my dreams come true.
In my professional career, I have met many outstanding editors from whom I have learned that ambition is nothing wrong. My luck is that everywhere I go I still meet people who are better than me. It’s inspiring!
What has been the biggest high and biggest low of your career so far?
When after 11 years of work (in 2019) I decided to leave Gazeta Wyborcza, I was afraid that it would turn out that I could do nothing other than write for editors I had known for ages. I didn't know what was waiting outside. It was the most difficult professional decision of my life, preceded by problems with mental health. I had anxiety and depression. I was overworked. I felt that I needed a change and at the same time I was terrified.
That decision started the biggest high of my career. Working in an internet portal, but in the back room of a large news television TVN24, pulled me out of my comfort zone. From then on, I learned not only to write, but also to tell stories. Frequent appearances on television increased the impact of my texts, restored my agency and a sense of strength. Behind them came recognition in the form of industry awards and distinctions. In 2020 I published my first book for kids and teenagers Young Power, which I believed was a result of a job change. I felt stronger than ever before. My new editors saw me as an expert and that gave me power. TVN24 is a place where I found a space to transform the experiences of education and my own mental health problems into a second book (“Nie powiem ci, że wszystko będzie dobrze”).
Journalism has long been a precarious profession. How do you experience this and how do you find support?
For the first few years of my career, I did not have an employment contract. For a long time, I was earning less than the average salary in my country, despite education and professional successes. Even though I have a stable, well-paid job today, I am still aware that many talented, hard working people have left the industry due to job insecurity.
Awards such as this one, journalism contests or grants are an opportunity for high-quality journalism. They give you the opportunity to work in a calm and stable manner on long-term journalistic projects. Someone who doesn't have to worry about their own future certainly has more strength to fight for someone else's.
But it's not just about money. Such distinctions from the outside give strength and are also a signal to the readers. They show qualitative journalism and its role in society. They remind you that this work is important, and when it comes to quality, social media is still not able to replace the traditional ones.
What does being named the Evens Journalism Prize laureate mean to you and the future of your work?
I believe the Evens Journalism Prize is a stamp of quality. This distinction is an honour for me and gives me a lot of joy. I believe that it also increases the importance of the topics that I deal with on a daily basis. I hope it will encourage readers to explore my writings and other journalists to pay close attention to education.
Explore more of Justyna Suchecka's work (all text in Polish):
Tysiące dzieci wypadło z systemu. Gdzie ich szukać? (Thousands of children have dropped out of the system. Where to look for them?) – TVN24
"A ty musisz codziennie wracać do szkoły i nieważne, że tam każdego dnia w środku umierasz" ("And you have to go back to school every day and it doesn't matter that you're dying inside there every day.") – TVN24
Wszystkie dzieci jego są. Jak zmieniała się rola kuratora oświaty i jaką władzę ma teraz dostać? (All his children. How has the role of the education superintendent changed and what power does he now get?) – TVN24
Jestem tylko dzieckiem, nie powstrzymam wojen. Ale to nie znaczy, że nic nie mogę (I am just a child, I cannot stop wars. But that doesn't mean I can't do anything) – TVN24
Czego (nie) uczy polska szkoła? (What does Polish school (not) teach?) – Magazyn Pismo
Kto ty jesteś? Obywatel cyfrowego świata (Who are you? Citizen of the digital world) – Wyborcza.Pl