Spin Doctors: How Media and Politicians Misdiagnosed the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Nora Loreto (Fernwood Publishing, 2021)
Review by Adrian Ma
Toward the end of 2020, the editors of the popular website Dictionary.com hosted a “People’s Choice” survey to identify the defining word of the year, something that its users felt best encapsulated the metaphysical timbre of the preceding 12 months. The top pick, it turned out, was “unprecedented,” a choice undoubtedly inspired by the myriad ways the COVID-19 pandemic had upended our professional and personal lives. As the virus spread from Wuhan, China in late 2019 to every corner of the planet, we were introduced to public health measures like “physical distancing” and mandatory mask wearing. Lockdowns were employed in an effort to “flatten the curve,” while healthcare systems across the world strained to cope with the influx of patients. Classrooms were emptied and students logged onto Zoom for hours on end. Restaurants and retail stores transitioned to pick-up and delivery services, leaving massive numbers of employees without work. Lining up outside hospitals for nasal swabs became a routine activity for some. Indeed, all of this felt “unprecedented.” And while governments struggled to formulate effective responses to a disease that threatened our health and economy like few crises before, news organizations—already stretched thin by years of budget cutbacks and job losses—also scrambled to share the full picture.
Few individuals in Canada have tracked the expansive, breathless, and sometimes hazy media coverage of COVID-19 in this country like Nora Loreto. The Quebec City-based activist, author, and podcaster began her deep dive into reporting on the virus in April 2020. At the time, Quebec was seeing shocking increases of COVID deaths among long-term care residents. Loreto believed it essential for journalists and members of the public to have an easily accessible record of the fatality numbers to refer to. When she discovered that no online record like this existed, she created her own public spreadsheet to track the deaths, combing through news stories, public health unit data, provincial ministry sources, and obituaries each day.
Over the next year-and-a-half, Loreto would examine more than 30,000 articles and web pages from news organizations and public health sites. More than 26,000 Canadians died from COVID during this time frame and nearly 1.5 million had been infected; these numbers would grow to nearly 45,000 deaths and over 4 million infections by September 2022. Loreto saw missteps and missed opportunities in how both the government and news industry responded to the emergency. In her most recent book, Spin Doctors: How Media and Politicians Misdiagnosed the COVID-19 Pandemic, Loreto makes a detailed and compelling case that while governments and politicians consistently fumbled their management of the virus, mainstream journalism largely failed to hold them accountable.
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This review appears in Facts and Frictions, published by J-Schools Canada — Canada’s national association for post-secondary journalism research and education. All content is open access and available via J-Source.