TORONTO — The deadly virus that swept Canada this year dominated headlines as it killed thousands of Canadians, sickened tens of thousands of others and prompted profound social and economic dislocation.
The pandemic, an event whose global impact is unsurpassed in recent history, burst into the collective consciousness in March, infusing conversations and news reports alike.
Now, in what one editor described as a no-brainer, the country’s news editors, publishers and broadcasters have chosen COVID-19 as news story of the year in an annual survey by The Canadian Press.
The pandemic crushed all other survey contenders in 2020, worthy as they were.
“It’s impossible for any story to overshadow the pandemic this year,” said National Post news editor Jeff Carson in voting for the COVID story. “Just an incredibly rare, wildly disruptive crisis that impacted every single Canadian.”
The sheer dominance of the COVID-19 story — perhaps more fairly described as a deluge of a thousand of stories — dwarfed others that, in any other year, might easily have won the nod.
Those include the police killing of a Black man in the U.S. that spawned a surging awareness of the ugly realities of racism in Canada, runner-up in the national news agency’s survey.
“COVID-19 is real and sweeping and has power, but the critical mass over truth and reconciliation demands work, and will define who we are as a nation,” said Jim Poling, editor-in-chief of the Waterloo Region Record.
Some among the 97 voting editors, publishers and broadcasters noted ties between this year’s top stories.
“The two are also intrinsically linked,” said Sarah Bugden, assistant managing editor with the Edmonton Journal and Sun. “It would be a shame to ignore how big the systemic racism story has been, even while much of the country has spent some time locked down.”
So far-reaching and dominant were the tentacles of the extraordinary pandemic coverage, only one other story registered even a single vote in claiming third place: the gut-wrenching horror of the Nova Scotia massacre in April.
It was, as one news director said, a shooting that shook the province to its very core even as it, like every other province, grappled with the pandemic.
“Dealing with the grief was compounded by the pandemic itself, as Nova Scotians could not come together to console one another as we are used to,” said Ken Kingston, with CJFX-FM in Antigonish, N.S.
“In an ordinary year, the tragedy in Nova Scotia would be the top story,” said James Miller, managing editor of B.C.’s Penticton Herald. “Instead, it was just another tragic news story in a terrible year.”
Among the myriad related articles that propelled COVID-19 to the top news choice were those of personal grief and devastation wreaked on nursing homes. Each new day seemed to bring a fresh wave of bad tidings as Canadians, many for the first time, tuned in daily to watch their political leaders and health officials talk coronavirus in grim tone.
The wall-to-wall coverage even included the protests of those who believe COVID is a hoax.
Simply put, as Murray Wood, provincial news director of 980 CJME/650 CKOM in Saskatchewan did, “2020 = COVID-19.”
As most non-essential commercial and recreational activity ground to a halt, the federal government threw open the vaults in a frantic effort to help Canadians stave off financial ruin. And then, in recent weeks, pandemic-weary eyes pivoted toward the seemingly only sure-fire way to break COVID fever: the race to develop and distribute a vaccine, already a likely contender for top news story of 2021.
“(COVID-19) cast a light on our society and its divides but also showed us how we can still unite for the common good,” said David Trifunov, managing editor of the Daily Courier in Kelowna, B.C.
Populating pandemic news stories were a long list of words and terms that, if once obscure, quickly became part of the vernacular. Topping that list might be pandemic and COVID-19 itself, but others, such as social distancing, lockdown, masking, bubbles, and curve flattening, all now roll off the tongue.
Within the flood of COVID stories, some popped up only to slip beneath the surface of the news torrent.
Others, such as schools and businesses closing and reopening and closing again, were constants, as were those about the mounting toll of the virus and disruption few could have imagined.
“Nothing has had such an impact on the lives of all Canadians since the Second World War,” said Claudine St. Germain, top editor at L’actualité in Montreal.
Other important contenders that garnered no votes were the WE scandal that threw the Liberal government on its heels and seemed to herald the destruction of a charity darling. There was the Boeing 737 Max crash in Ethiopia that killed 18 Canadians in January, Indigenous pipeline blockades, and the conflict over the east coast lobster fishery. Other stories, like the opioid crisis and its ceaseless death toll, didn’t make the final cut.
“COVID overshadowed everything,” said Christina Spencer, the Ottawa Citizen’s editorial pages editor.
Last year’s story of the year — voting was much closer — was climate change, while the heart-breaking Humboldt bus crash took top spot in 2018. For now, though, it has been and is COVID-19, COVID-19, COVID-19.
“It’s the story of a generation and possibly the century,” said Steve Serviss, editor at the Kingston Whig-Standard. “Although most of us will never know.”