Level Up: How Reporters Can Show Sources Respect

When someone has just been through a traumatic experience like a natural disaster, a mass shooting or being the target of a crime, it can feel insensitive for a reporter to approach them and immediately start asking questions.   

Expert journalists from NBC News, MSNBC, CNBC, Telemundo and NBC News NOW share ways to get sources comfortable sharing their experiences with audiences without making the reporting feel transactional. Watch the video above and read their advice below.

Making interviewees feel comfortable

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Vicky Nguyen, “NBC News Daily” co-anchor: Everybody wants to feel like they are being treated with kindness and respect. That cuts across languages and cultures. I try to disarm my subjects as much as possible and make them feel comfortable and let them know, “Listen, we’re just having a conversation. There is no wrong answer here. It’s your opinion, it’s your thoughts.”     

We should all do our best to remember that we might be encountering someone on the worst day of their lives, and to approach it accordingly.   

Julia Ainsley, NBC News correspondent: Most of the people I’m talking to, they’re either subject matter experts or they’ve experienced something that I can’t even imagine going through. I’m not there to teach them or to try to impose my viewpoints. All I can do is ask them the most basic questions that will unlock their experiences and let them teach me something.    

Dan De Luce, NBC News investigative reporter: Try to make small talk with them. Find out their background, where they’re from, sports — whatever you can do to break the ice, get them comfortable. Then ask polite but firm questions, and keep coming back to them.   

Antonia Hylton, NBC News correspondent: Be really transparent about how all this works. Make sure they understand what it means to talk to a reporter, to share your story.    

Michelle Cho, “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt” producer: You have to be very concise, very efficient and also very confident in how you speak to people. That’s what we try to focus a lot of our coverage [on] — especially these underrepresented communities — everyday people.    

Alice Barr, NBC News, Washington Correspondent: Actively listen. Make sure the person that you’re interviewing knows that what they are saying matters. Make sure they feel comfortable with you so that they want to share the most authentic version of their story. You are in a privileged position. They’re trusting you with their stories — take that seriously. 

Melissa Lee, “Fast Money” host: Listen to the person, have that roadmap in your head. Know that you’ve really prepared by learning everything there is to learn about the person and why you’re talking to them.  

Zinhle Essamuah, “NBC News Daily” co-anchor: When you want an individual to open up to you, look in their eyes. You have to make them comfortable.

Be incredibly sensitive about language, when we’re talking about “underserved,” “underrepresented” communities. Remember that there are hidden identities that people hold, when it comes to demographics and ability.

Making non-English speaking sources comfortable

Brian Cheung, NBC News business and data correspondent: I explain to a source that’s a little bit nervous about the language barrier, “We need to translate this, because other people might want to hear that. … Here’s why you should trust us when we tell your story and here’s a potential outcome that could come with that.”   

Sandra Lilley, NBC Latino managing editor: If you really want to make someone comfortable, you have to know the degree of familiarity that you have with that language. Don’t be afraid to make that connection and make it casual. If you miss a word, smile, [say] “Whoops, I forgot that one, maybe you can help me out.”   

Remember that newsgathering is all about making sources comfortable and trying to get the story right.   

Gadi Schwartz, “Stay Tuned NOW” anchor and NBC News correspondent: If I hear an accent, I light up. I will immediately start to ask questions and I might switch into Spanish, depending on the context of the situation. For me, hearing an accent and knowing what region it’s from establishes an immediate connection.   

José Díaz-Balart, MSNBC, “NBC Nightly News” and Telemundo anchor: That’s the accent of someone who is making a difference. And who is creating their own legacy of service without asking for anything in return. Those accents are accents to be applauded.

Example: ‘Why Did You Do This?’: Migrants Share Story of Why They Left Venezuela, reported by José Díaz-Balart

More tips from our experts
How NBC News Reporters Earn the Trust of Sources
Words That Hurt
Developing Sources Within Your Beat