State Policy Network
Communications case study: Washington Policy Center exposes governor’s unscientific and misleading coronavirus dials

Washington was one of the first states hit by the coronavirus pandemic. On March 23, 2020, the Washington Governor issued a stay-at-home order, forcing all non-essential businesses to close. Thousands lost their jobs. As the lockdown dragged on, many Washingtonians tuned in to the Washington Governor’s press briefings, eager to find out when they could go back to work.

In April, the Washington Governor released the “COVID-19 risk assessment dashboard”—an overview of the data used to make decisions about reopening the economy. The dashboard was intended to provide a science-based path for Washington’s recovery. However, the Washington Policy Center (WPC) found the dashboard was designed to imply science but lacked meaningful data. WPC launched a campaign to share this information with lawmakers and the media.

SPN: Tell us about the project.

Washington Policy Center: Governor Jay Inslee of Washington held regular press briefings concerning business closures and other measures he deemed necessary to address the COVID-19 pandemic. He asserted his policies were based on science and that reopening the state depended in part on the performance measured by his COVID-19 risk assessment dials. WPC research showed his risk assessment dials to be unscientific, and the project was to share this information as widely as possible.

SPN: Who was your audience and why?

Washington Policy Center: Our audience was media and lawmakers. We knew the research was powerful and if we could expose it, correction would be almost inevitable. We didn’t partner with others to share our work—it occurred organically.

SPN: How did this project influence the media narrative?

Washington Policy Center: Todd Myers, Director of the Center for the Environment at WPC, did some incredible work examining the state’s testing rates and the governor’s widely-touted COVID-19 risk assessment dials. Todd’s revelation that the risk-assessment dials were sometimes not tied to any data and other times connected to incorrect data was sent broadly to media partners and a few key outlets.

We also shared this information on our social media channels and highlighted it on our homepage. The Olympian (the state capitol’s newspaper which is widely circulated among lawmakers and their staff) featured Todd’s work in a front-page story. The Olympian story also ran in The News Tribune of Tacoma and The Bellingham Herald and led to op-eds in Shift and The Wall Street Journal. The Wall Street Journal piece led to an interview on the “Ingraham Angle” on Fox News.

We saw our work begin to have an impact when a reporter started asking questions based on Todd’s work at the governor’s regular COVID-19 press conferences. Shortly after Todd’s work received this high-level state and then national coverage, Governor Inslee abandoned his risk assessment dials and opted for new metrics. WPC’s work shifted the media narrative from one of acceptance of the governor’s narrative to one that questioned his assumptions and data presentation.

WPC’s Todd Myers on Fox News.

SPN: Why was your campaign so successful?

Washington Policy Center: There was no alternative to WPC’s message. No one else had done the research, so WPC’s position became the dominant one, so much so that the governor abandoned his own risk assessment dials, an implicit acknowledgment that WPC’s narrative made the status-quo unsustainable. There were a few selected criticisms that expressed anger that the governor was being challenged in a time of crisis, but most responded with appreciation and curiosity. The quality of Todd’s work and its reliability likely increased WPC’s stature in the media even if many do not agree with our free-market perspective.

For their success in keeping government accountable, the Washington Policy Center was a winner of SPN’s Communications Excellence Awards in the Driving the Media Award category.

Categories: State News
States: Washington
Organization: State Policy Network