August 29, 2020

 
Amplify: What we lose when we stop talking to 
 
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On a recent bike ride through Toronto’s Sunnybrook Park, I passed another cyclist. Soon after, he sped in front of me. Then, I overcame him. This dance continued until we both stopped at a crossroad.

 
Suddenly, I had the urge to talk to this stranger. It dawned on me – throughout five months of lockdown, I had rarely spoken to a person I didn’t know.

 
As a digital-content editor at The Globe and Mail, I spend my days managing the homepage of our website. Publishing our stories online this week, I began to think about the transaction of information between reporters, readers and sources. Our reporters help readers learn about what is going on in the world, but they can only do so by talking to a range of sources, which includes official representatives and spokespeople but also others who have more casual and personal connections to a story. Sometimes these are people no one has ever heard of, essentially strangers to our 

 
 
On a personal level I find talking to strangers fascinating (that cyclist? He’s an aerospace engineer named Massy with a son living in B.C.). But on a professional level, I recognize that the pandemic creates a challenge for journalists. The widespread shutdown of events and places where people typically congregate means strangers are harder to come across.

 
Almost a decade ago, journalist Melinda Blau and psychologist Karen L. Fingerman were thinking about the importance of strangers, too. They wrote a book titled Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don’t Seem to Matter … But Really Do.

 
Fingerman coined the phrase “consequential strangers” to describe the value of individuals we meet by chance. The authors demonstrate how random people have the ability to link us to information we could never access through our personal networks.

 
I’ve learned this through my own work. When I was reporting a recent story on construction in Toronto’s St. James Town during the pandemic, I called community organizations and searched Facebook groups to find people in the neighbourhood. The physical constraints of COVID-19 meant I could only access those who had a presence on the internet. (Luckily, the community organizations I contacted acted as a bridge and connected me with locals later on.)

 
But most of the people Google led me to already had a following or an association with an established organization. I wanted to find new perspectives and amplify them, not just turn up the volume for people who already had the microphone. Particularly, I wanted to showcase women’s voices.

 
Informed Opinions, an organization dedicated to achieving gender balance in the media, has been keeping tabs on the ratio of females to males quoted in online Canadian news coverage since 2018. Their Gender Tracker revealed that 70 per cent of those quoted were male and 30 per cent were female. One obvious reason: the disproportionate presence of men in official positions.

 
In my view, strangers can help reduce this imbalance.

 
Earlier this year, I was researching Artificial Intelligence for my master of journalism thesis at Ryerson University and regularly attended AI conferences. Reflecting on my reporting, I realize the experts who stood on stage at these events are the same people whose names surface at the top of my search engine. They have public prominence and authoritative credibility.

 
Yet in the audience, I discovered invaluable, unanticipated sources – people who I would never have found on the internet. Their life experiences largely shaped my writing and redirected my storytelling.

 
Also in the Before Times, I boarded a flight to Vancouver and struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me. It turned out she was a screenwriter returning to B.C. after shooting a film about an Indigenous teen struggling to keep his family above water.

 
We spoke about her heritage and how her Indigenous roots shaped the films she produced. Then, she asked me how my family history informed the stories I wrote. As we shared a bag of peanuts (now, unimaginable), I told her that my grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. Together, we unpacked how his history has affected my storytelling.

 
When we landed, we exchanged phone numbers and made plans to meet when she returned to Toronto in April. Needless to say, we never did. As Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book Talking to Strangers, “Sometimes the best conversations between strangers allow the stranger to remain a stranger.”

 
Talking to strangers isn’t merely an interesting way to pass the time. It’s consequential. Strangers enable us to reach stories that we cannot see without them and reveal a new side of the lens – the importance of which cannot be lost in these pandemic times.

 

What else we’re thinking about:

Eternity Martis’s memoir They Said This Would be Fun is an essential read. Martis writes about her experience as one of the few Black women at Western University in London, Ont. She details anecdotes of being confronted by white students in blackface at a Halloween party, racial slurs at bars and a relationship with a white man who tokenized her. I wish I had read this book before I attended Western, although, as Martis points out, her experience is not merely a Western problem. Universities across the country are plagued by systemic racism. Martis’s book is not just a memoir, it’s also a survival guide.