Combating Negative Stories

Micah Ali

Urban school districts, especially those on the rise and experiencing tremendous improvement, face a dilemma: Leverage the deficit-riddled narratives about their communities that tend to garner attention from sponsors and corporate partners, or fight those narratives tooth and nail and position their schools as worthwhile investments, where the R in ROI is academic achievement and doors opened for students.

Even with a cursory perusal of mainstream news media coverage of many urban communities, Compton Unified School District included, one will find stories with sensationalized accounts of crime, poverty, people struggling, stereotypes, and tropes about people of color. It is almost as if the writers or reporters have watched too much fictionalized television and have embraced these narratives as the absolute truth.

Is there crime in many urban, low-income communities? Yes. But, I can tell you from experience, there is also an abundance of strong families, hard-working people, community solidarity, professionals, and contributing members of society who care about their neighborhoods. These realities seem to have no place in media coverage of urban communities.

As much as this frustrates us in urban school leadership, districts have benefitted from it to a certain degree. Corporate sponsors, celebrities, foundations, and initiatives have all responded to the tragedy and the lack in many urban communities by coming to the aid of the students in need of resources. They have provided amazing experiences, equipment, mentors, programs, funding—all in response to their hearts being broken by the stark and sometimes tragic realities that students face in their everyday lives, splashed across a newspaper or television news show day in and day out.

A one-sided, deficit narrative does not have to kidnap our narrative, for this is not the whole truth. It positions our children as broken victims in need of saving and our hard-working urban school district leaders as ineffectual in supporting them. It may be a story, but it is not the entire story. A 2015 analysis of news media conducted by the Journal of Communication found there to be a preponderance of misrepresentation of race and crime on network and cable news. It is a fact that has been proven repeatedly.

This must change. We need to hold mainstream news media accountable for the gross misrepresentations they put forth in pursuit of ratings, and invite them to be partners in advocacy for our youth. I challenge all urban school district leaders to tackle this issue head on. In Compton, we have engaged a seasoned communications professional who has researched the issue of biased portrayals in media as a part of her doctoral dissertation work and is astute at reframing stereotypical narratives to uplift and amplify the positive.

Below are three ways she works with our district to combat unbalanced media portrayals of our school district. I share these with you as recommendations.

  1. Take control of your narrative—If you do not tell the entire story, no one else will. Create, push out, and repeat. Your positive stories and triumphs are yours to share. Be relentless and consistent with it.
  2. Resist the temptation—Work to avoid the temptation to fall into a stereotypical, sensationalized narrative in order to garner financial support from partners. Our students’ circumstances and the needs of school sites are a reality, but the ability of both students and schools to achieve great things in spite of challenges is the more powerful story and the greatest, most compelling reason for an individual or organization to lend their support.
  3. Guide your media contacts—It is important to ensure writers and reporters understand nuances of a deficit-based frame for stories versus one that is an asset-based. Let them know you are interested in sharing about the strengths of your students and schools, not pandering to their poverty for publicity.

The news media can be valuable partners in our fight against under- achievement and in our efforts to ensure our students have access to the greatest of opportunities. It begins with making sure our students’ stories are honored as they are told.

Micah Ali ( is a member of California’s Compton Unified School District and the 2018-19 chair of the CUBE steering committee.

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