How NBC News Reporters Earn the Trust of Sources

Since October, NBC News digital reporter Jon Schuppe’s investigative series “Lost Rites” has focused on failures in Mississippi’s death notification system.  

He first reported on Dexter Wade, who died after being struck by a police car in Jackson in March. It took five months for his family to learn about his death and burial in a county pauper’s field. Schuppe soon learned of two other men buried in the same field without their families’ knowledge. By December, NBC News had the names of 215 people anonymously buried, posting them in the hopes of alerting more families. In response, Jackson police adopted a new policy for notifying dead people’s next of kin.  

Bettersten Wade (left), the mother of Dexter Wade, speaks with Jon Schuppe (right).
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The “Lost Rites” series relied on Schuppe carefully building trust and forging relationships with traumatized families. Those relationships allowed him and his colleagues to show that the botched notifications were not isolated cases but indicative of systemic failures all over the country.  

“Each of the families that we’ve written about told us, in a deep and emotional way, how much it meant to them to be heard and to be given a voice,” Schuppe said. “It really returns me to why I became a journalist in the first place.”  

Watch the video above and read below for Schuppe’s tips on building trust and maintaining connections with sources.  

How to build trust and connect with sources

  1. Remember that most people have no experience dealing with reporters. Schuppe takes extra care to explain basic elements of the reporter-source relationship, like attribution

    “I was clear that I’m a reporter, and anything that we’re talking about could become part of a story,” he said. 
  2. Be there and really listen. Schuppe explained to families that he didn’t want to just “extract information,” but to develop a long-term relationship. 

    “I approach situations like this with frequent texts, frequent phone calls, checking in on people. … Like, ‘You’re still important to me and I’m interested in what’s happening to you,’” he said. “‘And if you’re comfortable with it’ — and I always give people an out if they’re not — ‘I’d like to keep in touch and see what happens next in your journey.’ And people really respond to that.”
  3. Be transparent about your job as a journalist. Schuppe clearly explains the reporting process to build trust with sources.

    “This is who I am, this is the type of work that I do,” he said he tells them. “This is the type of story that I believe is happening here.
  4. Avoid surprising sources. “Be very explicit about what it is that I do and what the process is like. This is who I am, this is the type of work that I do. This is the type of story that I believe is happening here,” Schuppe said. 

How Schuppe delivered hard news to a parent

After Schuppe reported on Wade’s story, he learned about Jonathan David Hankins, who was buried in the same pauper’s field without his family knowing what had happened to him. Schuppe carefully planned how to handle the “ethical obligation” of alerting Hankins’ family about his death and anonymous burial, while maintaining journalistic standards.  

Talking with Hankins’ mother at her kitchen table, Schuppe took a two-pronged approach — explaining what happened to Hankins and showing documentation, and then discussing his reporting without pressuring her to participate.  

“I said, ‘I’m going to go back to my hotel, and I’m going to be here for a couple of days. If you want to talk, I’ll be around,’” Schuppe said. “In the moment, she was extremely upset, so I backed off.  

“We texted a little bit because she was looking for help getting additional information. And then on the second or third day, I said, ‘Listen, I’m going to be leaving town soon. Would you like to share what you’ve been through?’ And she said yes,” he recalled. “I went to her house and then did the interview that became the foundation of that story.” 

Gallery: Jon Schuppe reporting on Dexter Wade

Credit: Ashleigh Coleman for NBC News; additional photography featured: Imani Khayyam and Craig Mulcahy for NBC News.