Tips for covering Charlotte mayor’s arrest and other big stories

Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon (source: charmeck.org)

Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon (source: charmeck.org)

“This Charlotte mayor story is a record geek’s dream come true.”

A friend sent me that message today after news broke that Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon had been arrested and charged with corruption. He is accused of soliciting and accepting more than $48,000 in cash, airline tickets, a hotel room and the use of a luxury apartment as bribes.

This is the kind of story where a public records mindset is so important. In the coming days, reporters will be going to the mayor’s house and hunting down friends and colleagues for comments, but how many will be filing public records requests?

The first and possibly most important public record has already been released – the FBI’s 48-page affidavit, which breaks down the case against the mayor. But reporters should keep digging.

Cannon was the longest-serving elected official in Charlotte, according to The Charlotte Observer, and that means there’s a long trail of records that should be examined.

So, how should newsrooms handle public records requests when covering a huge story like this? Here are some ideas:

1) First, make a commitment to requesting records. Asking for records shouldn’t be something your newsroom only does if it has time. It must be part of the reporting process.

2) Select a point person who can help coordinate and organize the requests. The mayor’s communications office is going to be slammed with requests for interviews and other information. You don’t want two reporters in your newsroom asking for the same documents. That just slows down the process and annoys the communications office.

3) Make smart, thoughtful requests. Would it be great to read every email the mayor ever sent and received? Sure, but it will take a long time to get that. If you’re willing to wait, fine. In the meantime, try scaling back your request and only ask for emails that include certain keywords or are from a specific timeframe.

4) Find records that others overlook. Will reporters ask for the mayor’s emails? Probably, and you should, too. But find other records that will add depth to your stories, such as text messages, letters, visitor logs, voicemails, phone records, etc.

5) Stay on top of your requests. Don’t file and forget it. Call the person you sent the request to, be pleasant and ask for his or her help. Making that connection could help you get records faster than everyone else.

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How does your newsroom handle public records requests? Post a comment or write to me at kahinchcliffe@gmail.com or on Twitter @RecordsGeek.

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