Q&A: Sojourners’ Mitchell Atencio

Part of being held accountable is being open about your values

The conversation surrounding the merits of objectivity in news has remained a primarily insular discussion between reporters. 

Whether it’s the “media reckoning” from last summer or the renewed push to adopt human rights language when discussing the treatment of Palestinians, many of these discussions do not trickle down to the general public.

Last month, Sojourners, a progressive faith-based magazine, published a piece entitled “How Journalism Obscures State Violence”. But rather than directing the piece towards other reporters, the editorial, written by Sojourners’ Assistant News Editor Mitchell Atencio, was penned primarily to the publication’s audience.

Atencio wanted to bring the debate around objectivity to the publication’s readers, educating them about how poor framing can obscure what’s actually happening on the ground. He noted the substantive distinction between passive and active voice (i.e. “a tower collapses after being hit by missile” versus “an Israeli missile destroyed a building in Gaza”) and asked readers to hold the publication “accountable” for its coverage.

A long-time powerhouse for progressive Christianity, Sojournerswebsite acknowledges that its writers “have a point of view,” but also urges them to explain to readers “how they have arrived at their conclusions.” This articulation was particularly exciting to me because earlier this year, I spent time writing for Sojourners.

According to Atencio, part of being held accountable is being open about your values. In the editorial, he wrote, “Editors and reporters should work to recognize the ways our biases affect our coverage so that we can communicate those with our readers and build a trust set upon the foundation of transparency.”

I spoke with Atencio about being transparent with his biases, confronting reader distrust, and how his personal faith impacts his reporting (and vice versa).

This conversation is edited for length and clarity.

The discussion over the nature of objectivity has spiked over the past year. I'm curious why it felt necessary to share that discussion specifically with Sojourners audience?

I brought up the idea of writing something directly to our audience because we were noticing that the conversation around the language of objectivity and around state violence—especially in the week of Hamas and Israel's most recent violence—was one that was happening and I felt like there was value in explaining my approach as the news editor. 

Speaking broadly, a lot of communities do not get an inside peek at what happens in the news. Most people who have not worked in news don't know a lot about what that process is like. I believe that more transparency and more conversations with our community will help them want us to succeed. As journalists, we should see ourselves as members of a community, rather than seeing ourselves as writers with a captive audience.

As a faith-based publication, Sojo has a very obvious viewpoint on how it wants to cover issues in the national news, but some readers may see that as a “slant.” After all, part of your mission statement is “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” How do you respond to folks who see a point of view as a deficiency in your work?

I think there are two types of instances where people bring up the bias of a news organization.  The first is in bad faith. It’s often used as a weapon to delegitimize whatever work that is being done. All they're trying to say is that they don't want to consider whatever report they’re reading because they’ve decided it's from the wrong camp.

Then there are people with good faith questions who are concerned that they may not be getting the most honest version of events or the person writing the news story is trying to convince them of something. And I think that we as journalists sometimes trick ourselves into believing that if we do things well enough, and “objective” enough, that the audience will believe us. They'll believe we won't have any bias, that we won't have any slant, and that we don't bring our own personal backstories into how we cover something. And I just think it's mostly not true.

I think our audiences may know us better than we know ourselves. And even when [our audience] gets it wrong, they're going to believe that there's something there. So I think—and I talked about in the piece—that transparency, honesty, and a rigorous process dedicated toward truth is more important than trying to reach out toward this notion of being objective. And I think that as more journalists start moving in that direction (because a lot of us are), we're going to see those institutions and those journalists build a rapport with their audience, even the audience that disagrees with them.

I even see this from people in the context of Christian journalism. People from the more progressive side of things will tweet out Christianity Today stories and say, “Oh, this is a really good look at this.” And it's not because they think Christianity Today is unbiased. It's because Christianity Today is open and honest about what they do and who they cover and how they cover it. And as the [Sojourner] news editor, I want people to come and read our stuff because they know it's going to be rigorous and transparent. And if they feel like we have a certain bias, we do. We have things that we care about. That's just the truth.

I don't think it's wrong to shy away from that because transparency can be really helpful. At the same time, any kind of upfront acknowledgment of your publication’s values could potentially turn off a subset of readers. The folks that may need to hear your reporting could be turned off by your point of view. How do you reckon with that?

I just don't think institutions can keep the general public from deciding that they do or don't have a general bias. I’m not even against the idea that some institutions don't have stated values in the way that we do. There's certainly a place for reporting (like political reporting) that tries to seek out comment from both sides, regardless of how much they agree with both of the politicians and the parties. But I don't think that the solution is to try and explain to your audience why you're reliable, you just do reliable things and then show them that you're upfront and honest about what you do and who you are.

To the question of what if people don't trust you, I think—and I could be wrong—that an audience is more likely, if they're seriously interested in being a fair and honest person themselves, to read something from an outlet that acknowledges its own presumptions upfront.

That makes a lot of sense because those outlets are acknowledging where they're coming from. And so if readers know your point of view in advance, even if they disagree with it, at least they know what they’re getting themselves into when you're clicking on that link.

Yeah, I think if you have somebody who was raised, like I was, in a conservative Christian environment and they are genuinely interested in good faith discussions who comes to Sojourners’ website and saw that we didn't have these stated values—that our reporters often have perspective, but we asked them to be transparent about that and to show their work—then I think they would read our coverage, and very quickly decide that we didn't know ourselves. They’d say, “Oh look, this place clearly leans toward progressive Christianity, but they don't talk about that or acknowledge that. Are they trying to trick people?” And so, because we do acknowledge some of those things upfront, especially in our reporting, I'm hopeful that it builds trust even with readers who would disagree with us. We're not trying to hide anything from them.

Even more so from a faith-based standpoint, right? There's nothing that's inherently objective or center because everything is imbued, at least in part, with some kind of moral virtue—it's either of God or it's not of God. Objectivity, in a way, tacitly dismisses the ideology that there is a right and a wrong.

I'm not sure I would put it in quite those binaries of right and wrong. I think that if our approach to our news coverage was that we're on God's side and we're trying to report the news on God’s behalf that would create some weird meta-narrative conflicts of interest. 

As a faith-based organization, we’re different because we have a top priority of justice and we are trying to live up to what we perceive as the standard of God's justice. It's not like God's on our side. We are trying to move and help our community, and they're trying to help us. So I don’t think it's so much about rights and wrongs as much as it is about what we are pursuing. 

I wrote about this in the piece, but we can't delude ourselves into believing that we do not have the sort of connections to power and capital. All the other things that influence the life of everybody around us also influenced us as journalists. I wrote about state violence and we're hopefully trying to avoid providing culpability for state violence, because we care about justice. And for us justice is birthed out of a commitment to faith. Because we put our goals toward a justice that we think comes to us from a divine love and being, we pursue that in resistance to injustice.

You mentioned that the pursuit of justice is a big emphasis for Sojourners. There was a particularly insightful comment in the piece where you wrote that our ability to deceive and harm communities through lazy reporting should “place the fear of God in journalists.” If you don't mind a personal question, how does your personal faith affect the way that you frame and direct your coverage? How does that personally impact you? 

It's funny to hear how you read that I did. I think I meant it in some ways to poke fun at myself, being that I write at an organization that is faith-based. On another level, what I am hoping to get our peers to realize is that if we provide coverage of injustice in unjust ways we are perpetuating that injustice—intentionally or otherwise.

We (meaning historically white institutional news media) have been learning over the past five years about how police lie to us and to everybody else, how police violently abuse their power toward everybody. These are things that we had been told over and over and over again by the communities who faced it most often—communities of color, other marginalized people. And if you are a journalist, you have the luxury of knowing that police interactions are often recorded and have some skepticism when the police won't give you the footage. You can say, “Well, let me see the footage.”

But that fear of God comment was specifically to ask, “What happens when there isn't footage?” Do you just believe what the police tell you? In our industry, “the police said” has become shorthand for “this is how an event happened.” That's dangerous stuff.

How has my faith personally affected my news coverage? Or the inverse? How is my news coverage affected?

My faith has always been the thing driving me toward better news coverage because I want to believe that it’s possible to do good journalism in service of people in the community, not in service of money or in service of position and power. It's often faith that holds me out there. I have peers who have left the news media because they're convinced that there's no way you can untie the tangles of money and influence and journalism. Who knows, maybe they're right, but I'm still here today. 

How has my news coverage affected my faith? Paying attention to the things that I just talked about, police violence and all of that, it has always made me want to go back and question whether the assumptions that I've carried into news coverage are not just correct, but are they right. Early in my journalism career, I was being taught in college that we all have perspectives and opinions and we bring them into the newsroom with us. Covering [state violence] has made me go back to my faith and ask questions of it. When I see police killings or see faith activists doing their part to resist that state power and bring about a new community, that's brought me back to my faith to ask how all of these things are interconnected. How is what I believe about heaven and hell affecting what I believe about police and prisons? Because they are connected.

Whatever faith background reporters do or don't have, it’s good to consider what that background does to us on an existential or epistemological level. Just to wrap around to what you said at the beginning, I do think that if we're more honest about calling state violence and police killings what they are, then that will also help us build trust within the communities that have seen it firsthand.

I think that we should do the right thing because it's right and because it's honest and because it's true. If the silver lining of that is gaining more trust in our community and making our coverage more whole, that’s good too, but first and foremost we have to get it right. And a lot of times we haven't gotten it right.