At an interfaith student panel at Portland State University in April, a Muslim student responded to a question by confirming that it is ok in many Muslim countries to kill non-Muslims. A reporter for the student-run newspaper on campus tweeted out the video of this comment, an act for which he was fired. The newspaper stated that the main reason for the firing was because the video was run at a conservative news outlet—even though it was done without the reporter’s knowledge.
The reporter, Andy Ngo, is a graduate student in political science at Portland State University. Until this incident, he was also a reporter and multimedia editor for the Portland Vanguard, the student-run newspaper on campus. On April 26, the campus hosted a free student panel discussion, “Unpacking Misconceptions,” which it billed as “a panel & discussion on different Religions, Spiritualities, and Worldviews.”
Ngo writes that he began recording video with his cell phone when the Muslim student on the panel was asked about a verse in the Koran that allows Muslims to kill non-Muslims. The Muslim student answered:
I can confidently tell you, when the Koran says an innocent life, it means an innocent life, regardless of the faith, the race, like, whatever you can think about as a characteristic. And some, this, that you’re referring to, killing non-Muslims, that [to be a non-believer] is only considered a crime when the country’s law, the country is based on Koranic law — that means there is no other law than the Koran. In that case, you’re given the liberty to leave the country, you can go in a different country, I’m not gonna sugarcoat it. So you can go in a different country, but in a Muslim country, in a country based on the Koranic laws, disbelieving, or being an infidel, is not allowed so you will be given the choice [to leave].
Ngo was not there on an assignment for the Vanguard, merely as a student with an interest in the event. He proceeded to tweet the video of the Muslim student’s answer from his personal Twitter account.
— Andy Ngo (@MrAndyNgo) April 27, 2017
Here is full clip that I recorded. An audience member asked about Quran 5:51 & "infidels." He summarizes Quran 5:32 just before video starts pic.twitter.com/7FMgsPbFR6
— Andy Ngo (@MrAndyNgo) April 27, 2017
Ngo says that his tweet was shared with the editor-in-chief of the Vanguard shortly after the event concluded with no negative feedback. It was only four days later, when Breitbart ran a story based on his public tweets, that Ngo was called in for a meeting with the editor-in-chief and the managing editor of the Vanguard. Ngo did not contribute to the Breitbart story, and in fact, it ran without his prior knowledge.
Despite his complete lack of involvement in the story, and despite his prior sharing of the video with the editor-in-chief, Ngo was fired over the story. He says of the meeting:
My editor, whom I deeply respected at the time, called me “predatory” and “reckless,” telling me I had put the life and well-being of the Muslim student and his family at risk. She said that my tweets implied the student advocated the killing of atheists. Another person in the meeting said I should have taken into account the plight of victimized groups in the “current political climate.” The editor claimed I had “violated the paper’s ethical standards” by not “minimizing harm” toward the speaker.
The editors of the Vanguard state that the video was taken out of context, but it is more than five minutes of explanations and follow-up questions. The editors also state that the Muslim student was put at risk by the publishing of the video, seemingly unaware of the breathtaking irony of the risk faced by the folks he was talking about in the first place.
Ngo goes on to say that the editor told him that his history of affiliation with conservative media outlets was “toxic to the reputation of the Vanguard.”
That affiliation, of course, was merely another site that picked up a story he wrote and published it on their website. Apparently, Portland State University regards any affiliation with anything conservative, no matter how loose the affiliation, as toxic.
The Vanguard published its own report of the event (after rejecting Ngo’s idea for the article), in which they discuss the supposed controversy of the Muslim student’s explanation of Koranic law. At the conclusion of the article, they give a lengthy disclaimer, in which they apologetically state that it was a giant misunderstanding. They claim it was taken out of context, and that the panelist – whose name is deliberately left out of the report – was put at undue risk because the reporter tweeted the video of his interpretation of Koranic law. The disclaimer states, in part,
It is our assessment that this video clip was published and shared without context in a way that placed a PSU student in significant danger. As members of the PSU community, we are compelled to protect and support this student and urge readers to consider the explanatory nature of these comments and recognize the event’s intent to foster inclusion and understanding. What could have been a dialogue of mutual understanding became a source of pain and fear for some of those involved.
The Vanguard is committed to minimizing harm and providing context that takes special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story, as per the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.
Markedly biased media outlets have featured the event organizer’s comments without necessary context.
One can’t help but wonder if “markedly biased” media outlets such as Daily Kos or Huffington Post would have met with a similar reaction.
For his part, Ngo believes he was wrongfully terminated and his reputation is being dragged through the dirt. He published the video on his personal Twitter account because he believed the statement was newsworthy. Indeed, no problem existed at all until the story was picked up by Breitbart. By all appearances, the only issue was not the tweet itself, but rather the subsequent publishing of an article about the event by a right-leaning media outlet.
The lesson for student reporters here appears to be that you must be careful to ensure that no right-leaning reporters become aware of your reporting, lest they commit the sin of agreeing with you.
Journalistic ethics, indeed.
Epilogue: At the end of the Vanguard report of the event, a compelling comment is left by a Muslim student that appears to have gone completely unheeded: