Reporting Realities: Reflections on A24’s Civil War

Anna R.
April 24, 2024

This past weekend, I finally got to see "Civil War," and somehow it was nothing and everything I expected it to be. A24’s "Civil War" is perhaps the most unpolitical political piece of media I’ve ever seen. It is not an explicitly political or war movie, but rather a movie about journalism, which I suppose, to some extent, is inherently political. The film encourages the viewer to question the complexity of journalism, especially as it pertains to objective reporting and documenting history in times of political unrest and human rights violations. In a time where anyone can become a citizen reporter, thanks to the efforts of social media, it makes you directly confront the ethics and importance of accurate reporting and documentation. While I try to never tell people what to do or think, if you take one thing away from this reflection, please consider getting your news from diversified sources, including verified “mainstream” news outlets and publications, as well as your favorite social media creators and citizen reporters.

You can read the full synopsis here, but the film essentially follows four journalists of different mediums as they travel to a now dystopian and heavily guarded Washington D.C.. It’s unclear how the civil war happened or how many different sides there are. The film most closely follows the relationship between Lee  (Lord and Savior Kerstin Dunst) and Jessie ( Cailee Spaeny). Lee, a veteran photojournalist, meets Jessie by chance and seemingly takes her under her wing, begrudgingly of course. It’s clear throughout the film that Jessie is still learning the soft skills side of the profession. The film highlights the complexity and beauty of mentorship in a profession, something that, in all honesty, is sometimes lacking in social media.

Photo: A24

For what it’s worth I don’t think it’s intentionally something that’s lacking on social media, but rather because there aren’t enough veteran creators willing to be candid about their success on the platform, beyond clickbait. I sometimes feel that a lot of political or identity politics-based creators or thought leaders on social media aren’t honest about their own knowledge, instead often downplaying strategized viral moments as “oppsies.” But the truth is, if you got to 25,000 followers, you have some idea of what you’re doing. You know the system because you’ve played it. To pretend otherwise and then create some clickbait pot-stirring type of content is irresponsible. And within that, anyone can become a thought leader. Vanity metrics like follower count can give anyone credibility, which is actually twisted.  But I suppose that’s the point of social media; anyone with access to the internet and a smartphone can become someone with a following, even if they have no fucking idea what they are saying. In an instant, opinion can become fact.

Throughout the film, it isn’t clear which press each journalist is representing, aside from Sammy, representing a now archaic New York Times. Rather what we do know is that all of the journalists highlighted have made a commitment to reporting and documenting without bias, however difficult that may be. And while I imagine some people view this as inhumane and spineless, I think it’s more nuanced than that. Journalists are in part a form of documentarians, essentially preserving the realities of what’s happening in the world in real-time. In my opinion, to accurately document and preserve our history, we have to rely on journalists. And for what it’s worth, I do think there have been a number of moments in time across publications that journalism has been biased, if not downright messed up, and those moments are also important for capturing the culture of our time. We can never learn from our mistakes, never be better, if we don’t understand the entirety of our culture.

While nearly half of all Americans get some of their news from social media, it’s sometimes unclear within these numbers as to what counts as news. Are we counting only things that come from verified journalists and publications, or are we including citizen reports and thought pieces? While I fully believe in the importance and value of citizen reporting and political opinion pieces, people that do this are not held to the same journalism standard of ethics and accuracy. This includes me, I guess I comment on tech, and they are all my opinions informed by my experiences, which means I actually have no responsibility to write anything with accuracy. I could very easily make a graphic with unverified and intentionally inaccurate information (disinformation), and I would face no repercussions; in fact, it might not even be caught. All this to say, journalists are held to an ethics standard. They are bound to something bigger than the internet. They have a commitment to providing accurate, well-researched, reporting and documentation. And while I don’t think everyone of social media is intentionally evading journalism standards, I think it’s just much easer to avoid them, or to not understand them.

Photo: A24

Through journalism standards and ethics, many aspects often overlooked in citizen reporting or commentary come to light, as the film intriguingly highlights. One significant observation I've made pertains to the portrayal of children in citizen reporting/commentary. Historically, discussions have revolved around how much of a child's likeness should be shown in photographs. However, I've noticed a lack of similar standards on social media platforms. This raises questions about children's right to privacy and the exploitation of their stories and traumas for content, particularly by nameless/faceless accounts that frequently repost content.

Throughout the film, glimpses into the ethics of journalism are revealed. Details like framing shots or omitting certain elements to protect individuals' right to privacy, even in death, underscore the importance of nuance in maintaining humanity while documenting. Without giving away spoilers, there's a poignant moment where dignity and respect are prioritized, even in a situation of great importance for reporting, contrasting with potentially more sensationalized and profitable alternatives.

In this movie, there are no clear winners, leaving me with more questions about my own relationship with media consumption and, candidly, writing. Breaking the fourth wall here, I've always aimed to make it clear that my writing reflects my opinions. While I appreciate readers engaging with my content, I encourage independent research and critical thinking. It's important to note that, as of April 24, 2024, I receive no financial compensation from social media or this website. Everything I create is self-funded, without the intention to boast, but to maintain transparency regarding power dynamics at play

Anyways, go see "Civil War," or don’t. Go read Wired, or don’t. As always, take what resonates, leave what doesn’t, and think of diverse perspectives.

References & Readings:

From TV to TikTok, how we get the news is changing fast

Ethics in a Nutshell //The Nature of Ethics

How Social Media Has Changed How We Consume News