How CBC covered a year of unprecedented news stories

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For journalists, it is almost impossible to describe the events of this remarkable year without sounding hyperbolic. Few of us have worked through such an unrelenting news cycle, where each story seems to dwarf the one that came before and where the unprecedented has become the routine.

For me, the bookends of 2020 were stories of tragedy and hope. 

The new year was just days old when Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752, shortly after it took off from Tehran. The attack with surface-to-air missiles on Jan. 8 killed all 176 people on board, including 138 people with ties to Canada. The tragic, senseless loss of life touched Canadians deeply as family photos of the dead filled our screens. 

It would be, I thought at the time, one of Canada’s biggest stories of the year. It turned out to be one of many.

Nearly 12 months later, the COVID-19 pandemic’s second wave rages in much of Canada, and many tough months lie ahead. But there was an undeniable feeling of hope as “V Day” arrived on Dec. 14, and Canada’s first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were administered in Quebec and Ontario.

In between these bookends were months of extraordinary events and developments in a year unlike any other at CBC News, including:

  • The shutdown of large parts of the Canadian economy and a record-surge of government spending and massive debt to try to contain a virus that has infected more than 520,000 and killed more than 14,400 of us in Canada.

  • The worst mass shooting in Canada’s recent history after a gunman masquerading as an RCMP officer killed 22 people in several communities in rural Nova Scotia over 13 devastating hours in April.

  • The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which sparked global protests, calls to defund the police and a reckoning over anti-Black racism and systemic discrimination that reverberates to this day.

  • Three provincial elections, a federal confidence vote and two national leadership races that resulted in Erin O’Toole taking the helm of the Conservative Party and Canada’s Official Opposition while Green Party Leader Annamie Paul made history as Canada’s first Black leader of a federal party. And we covered the state funeral of former prime minister John Turner. 

  • The crash of a CH-148 Cyclone helicopter into the Ionian Sea off the coast of Italy in April that killed six members of the Canadian military — four air crew and two sailors. The following month, a member of the Canadian Forces Snowbirds team was killed and a pilot injured after ejecting from their plane, halting a cross-Canada tour meant to lift the spirits of Canadians and salute front-line workers during the pandemic.

  • The relatives of one of the “two Michaels,” breaking their silence in an exclusive interview with the CBC’s Adrienne Arsenault to discuss China’s ongoing detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. A week after that interview aired, China passed, in secret, a sweeping new security law for Hong Kong, giving Beijing broad powers to crack down on protest and other activities deemed secessionist or subversive in the former British colony. Arrests began within a day of the new law.

  • Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump in a bitterly polarizing U.S. presidential election that saw many firsts: amid record turnout, the contenders also each set records for the most votes cast for a presidential candidate (Biden at more than 81 million and Trump at more than 74 million); Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, became the first woman and first woman of colour to win the vice-presidency; and Trump became the first defeated president in a century and a half to cling to power after losing the electoral college vote, refusing to concede or accept the results of a vote he baselessly claimed was rigged.

Sharing stories of loss, perseverance

The demands on our staff to tell these stories and so many others — a heavy lift in the best of times — were particularly intense as we adjusted to physical distancing, personal safety equipment and the need to work from home. Kitchen tables became edit suites; living rooms became control rooms; closets became recording studios. 

We mounted more than 60 news specials on Radio, TV and CBC News Network — a record. We produced and packaged millions of words and hundreds of images. Some of us continued to venture into our quiet, hollowed-out newsrooms to put shows to air. 

In the field, we learned how to interview at a safe distance, how to clean vehicles and gear after every assignment. Some of our staff were verbally harassed on the streets for doing their jobs, a worrying sign that the polarization and delegitimization of journalism, so fervently stoked by some camps in the U.S., has taken root in this country. 

We persevered.  

We are proud of our work.

And still, we are mindful of those who have given so much more of themselves on the front lines of this pandemic: nurses, doctors, paramedics, public health staff, personal support workers and long-term care employees. We think of those who have died and their loved ones who opened up to us. We thank those who recovered and found the courage to share their stories in the hope of enlightening others about the realities of this pernicious disease.  

It’s a privilege to tell these stories, and we’ll continue to do so.

As Arsenault says in the video above, “When this ends, and it will end, we’ll still be here, with you.”

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