About News

A Media Ethics Case With a Tragic Consequence

F.L. “Bubba” Copeland, Smiths Station mayor who killed himself in November 2023. (Source: Smiths Station)

Cynics may be surprised to learn that media codes of ethics exist and take more than 30 seconds to read. That’s because media wield tremendous power — power customarily used for the public good but sometimes misused to disastrous effect.

The Alabama news website 1819 News published a story Wednesday revealing, against his will, that F.L. “Bubba” Copeland, the mayor of Smiths Station and the pastor of First Baptist Church of Phenix City, posted social media photos of himself dressed as a woman. This included lingerie pictures, and the story also said he offered online encouragement to people considering gender transition.

Copeland told the reporter this was a hobby intended to relieve stress. On Wednesday night, Copeland told his congregation he had nothing to be ashamed of.

On Friday, 1819 News published a story reporting that Copeland also wrote and posted erotic transgender fiction that included the names and photos of real people in the community. The fiction, according to the site, included secret surveillance and the imagined killing of a real person.

On Friday afternoon, Copeland killed himself.

Public reaction around the state, including from many journalists, branded the reports as cruel and unjustified. That’s accurate. And it would be accurate even if Copeland hadn’t ended his life.

As I wrote in 2021, multiple circumstances can make the private life of a public official legitimately newsworthy. The foremost question is whether private activities affect public performance. In Copeland’s case, there’s zero evidence of impact on his performance as mayor or as pastor.

But a public official’s hypocrisy can provide another reason for reporters to fairly delve into private behavior. This applies most often to lawmakers and political candidates who live one way but vote or campaign another. That’s not Copeland.

Was he a hypocrite as a Baptist preacher? That’s a better argument. But as with any media dilemma, you also have to answer the next question: Was he harming anyone inside or outside of the congregation? Was he harassing or grooming anyone? 1819 News threw in a lot of sentences to suggest maybe, possibly, perhaps that could happen. Actual evidence remained at zero.

I emailed a few questions to 1819 News editor Jeff Poor on Saturday morning. I’ll update the post if he replies. A statement on the website extends “our prayers” to the community, the church and Copeland’s family. Nothing in the way of editorial explanation. On social media, Poor pointed out that Copeland’s posts were publicly accessible on Reddit and so he shouldn’t have had an expectation of privacy. That’s about 10% of a persuasive argument to publish. Magnifying the reach of private content without consent is a helluva leap from that.

1819 News pushes a right-wing political agenda, and that includes its selection and framing of news stories. Long before the Copeland stories, it decided to actively take a side in the escalating culture wars of the state and nation.

Carefully deciding when private matters deserve public attention is one thing. Deciding you’re the morality police is another. When politics gets put ahead of ethics, people get harmed. And sometimes people get killed.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

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