Pastor’s Anthem Enforcement Threat Goes Viral-But Is It Real?

September 15, 2016

Earlier this week a story spread widely on social media about an Alabama pastor, Allen Joyner, who allegedly told a high school football game crowd he was announcing for that people who don't stand for the national anthem should be killed.

In a Facebook post, a woman named Denise Crowley-Whitfield wrote "the announcer audibly spoke the words that millions of Americans are thinking. He said, ‘If you don't want to stand for the National Anthem, you can line up over there by the fence and let our military personnel that a few shots at you since they're taking shots for you.'"

According to Crowley-Whitfield, his statement was greeted with wild applause from the crowd at McKenzie High School, much to the horror of people who believe in the First Amendment and support NFL player Colin Kaepernick's recent decision not to stand for the anthem. It was a ready-made viral outrage story highlighting religious bigotry and misplaced patriotism.

The pastor, however, claims he was misquoted. A survey of a dozen news stories without exception all cite a single source for the quote: one woman's attribution in a since-deleted Facebook post. The credibility of this second-hand source should give anyone pause, especially journalists, skeptics, and psychologists who are familiar with how people sometimes misperceive, mischaracterize, and misremember.

How do we know that the quote Crowley-Whitfield attributed to the pastor was accurate? Did she scribble down his impromptu remarks as he said them? Or did she transcribe them from an audio or video recording? If the latter, why hasn't that recording surfaced? And what about the hundreds of other people in attendance at the football game? Why has no one else corroborated her interpretation of what was said?

According to pastor Joyner his actual statement was "If you don't want to stand for the national anthem, please go sit at the baseball field and let some of our folks take a shot at reminding you of the price our military paid for your freedom to sit." That may have been offensive and obnoxious but is hardly the same as saying that people who sit out the anthem "should be lined up and shot" or killed, as viral social media posts have claimed. Many journalists sprinkled their stories with qualifiers such as "allegedly," but failed to confirm that the quote--which was after all the entire basis for the story--was indeed accurate.

Hemant Mehta offered an insightful analysis on his Friendly Atheist blog, including noting that the district's superintendent condemned Joyner. The fact that Butler County Schools Superintendent Amy Bryan denounced Joyner's comments in a statement ("Patriotism should be a part of school events but threats of shooting people who aren't patriotic, even in jest, have no place at a school...Threats of violence are a violation of school policy and certainly not condoned by the school board") was taken as implicit confirmation that the original quotation was accurate, but that's not a logical assumption.

Bryan did not state that Crowley-Whitfield had correctly reported Joyner's words, nor even that Joyner had in fact suggested that anyone was threatened with shooting, even in jest. Bryan, like most people, was almost certainly reacting to the Crowley-Whitfield post and responding based on the premise that it was accurate. (Bryan did not respond to a request for clarification.)

Taylor Leigh Smith, who was at the game and heard the pastor's remarks, has confirmed that the pastor's words were not accurately portrayed in the post: "The lady who made the original post did not post what he [Joyner] actually said... I'm not saying she lied. What she interpreted and posted was not word for word what he said."

So what happened? Mehta raises some interesting points, including how Crowley-Whitfield misinterpreted his statement that badly, since "it's not like she misheard a word or two --she got the entire thing wrong." It's not clear whether Crowley-Whitfield--who has since deleted her account and can't be reached for comment--intentionally misrepresented Joyner's words or merely misheard them. Psychologists know that most people don't remember words and conversations verbatim; instead we remember the gist or essence of the conversation.

Most of the time it's not an issue, but in this particular case what, exactly, Joyner said is crucial. Either he publicly suggested that those who don't stand for the National Anthem should be shot (or killed), or he didn't. Had Joyner been quoted as asking those who prefer not to stand for the anthem to "please go sit at the baseball field and let some of our folks take a shot at reminding you of the price our military paid for your freedom to sit," it might have resulted in some puzzled looks but almost certainly would not have been noticed or made news.

The context of the comment is important as well: it came from a woman attending a high school football game posting a message on her personal Facebook page for her friends; it was not a journalist taking care to accurately transcribe a comment from a politician or official. Had Crowley-Whitfield known that her post would go viral and propel Pastor Joyner into the national spotlight, she likely would have taken more care in accurately and correctly quoting him.

It's clear that the views attributed to Pastor Joyner reflected those of Crowley-Whitfield; her statement that this sentiment "spoke for millions of Americans" was her own opinion and commentary. Crowley-Whitfield likely did something most of us do on occasion: she used hyperbole and tweaked what a respected pastor said to better fit (and promote) her own personal opinions--and, by proxy, that of others who (she claims) feel the same way but don't speak out about it. In other words it was intended as one woman's personal and emotional exclamation about a charged controversial issue (patriotism), not as a completely accurate factual statement or verbatim transcription.

When the story first emerged, it was carried only on lesser-known blogs and news websites. But after a few days, more reputable (and better known) organizations carried the story (The Huffington Post, for example, asserted in a qualifier-free headline that "Alabama Pastor Allen Joyner Says People Who Don't Stand For The National Anthem Should Be Shot," while the Washington Post joined in with and equally bold--and potentially libelous--"H.S. Football Announcer Suggests Anthem Protesters Be Shot, Then Resigns"). This is a case study in confirmation bias, the power of social media outrage and social justice, and shoddy journalism.

Another reason this story gained so much traction in social media is that it fit neatly into pre-existing stereotypes and larger narratives, making people all the more ready to accept them. Many pastors have in fact been (accurately) quoted making controversial statements, from Trump surrogate Mark Burns tweeting a picture of Hillary Clinton in blackface to Steven Anderson, who praised the Orlando shooting at a gay nightclub. In this context, another pastor saying something impolitic seems almost routine and expected. This leads to the psychological phenomenon of confirmation bias, in which we more easily see and recognize situations we expect.

Joyner--who has been pilloried online for the past week and would be a good candidate for interview if Jon Ronson writes a follow up to his 2015 book So You've Been Publicly Shamed--maintains that he never said the words attributed to him, and that he does not endorse their message. He has since resigned from the volunteer position at the high school, saying it was inappropriate for him to inject his opinions as he did. I don't support Joyner--nor any version of his comment, "corrected" or otherwise--but it seems clear that he has been unfairly treated. It's easy to assume the worst about those we disagree with, but everyone deserves to be fairly represented and accurately quoted.

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