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The question that was a gamechanger for Syria

When the US and Russia agreed a diplomatic response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, it was a constructive question from a journalist that initiated the breakthrough, says Cathrine Gyldensted

When the US and Russia agreed a diplomatic response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, it was a constructive question from a journalist that initiated the breakthrough, says Cathrine Gyldensted

On 14 September 2013 in Geneva, Switzerland, US secretary of state John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov carved out a possible path for a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria. Their success in reaching an agreement that Syria’s chemical weapons must be destroyed or removed by mid-2014, is in sync with the opinion of a great number of people all around the world, who have grown weary of conflicts and escalations of violence. I understand the unrest in Syria is far from solved, but this agreement is a substantial step forward.

The fact that the two men sat down at the negotiation table was a surprising development, especially if looking back just over a week prior where President Obama and several US allies – among them my native country, Denmark – almost pushed the button for an airstrike. It’s essential to pause for a second and reflect on how this path for a more peaceful solution begun.

Let me take you back to a room at the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London on 9 September. Secretary Kerry and the UK foreign secretary William Hague had started their press conference with the usual formalities, niceties and truisms. Nobody expects real news to come from this briefing – it will be more drumming up the Syria conflict. No solutions in sight, at all.

Then, almost 25 minutes in, the magic happens. CBS´s correspondent Margaret Brennan asks John Kerry what at first glance seems like a simple question: “Is there anything at this point that [Assad’s] government could do or offer that would stop an attack?”

“Why don’t we ask more constructive or even mediating questions to people in power?”

What happens next has the potential to go down in history. Mr Kerry chose to speak candidly and thus inadvertently proposed a solution. If Assad’s chemical weapons were turned over and a full accounting followed, then the airstrike would be called off. All of this due to one constructive question asked by a journalist.

My challenge to my journalist peers is this: Why don’t we do that a lot more? Ask constructive or even mediating questions to people in power. This would be a conscious effort guided by quality interview techniques and best practices within journalism.

I’ve worked with constructive news formats and methods for some time, since I fell out of love with the way my hard news reporting impacted my audience – thus the world. I suddenly realised how I had unconsciously fostered victims, probably grown conflicts and actually failed at ‘reporting truth’. I asked the hard questions, I was critical, I uncovered inconsistencies from power-holders; all traits that we have agreed defines a great reporter.

However, ‘the truth’ cannot possibly be so overwhelmingly negative as news reflects. Our journalistic habit of being critical has evolved into a constant and detrimental focus on disagreements, conflicts between decision-makers, a focus that drives how society acts next. Most often it´s a downward spiral. What has become ‘the truth’ in news media is in reality only showcasing and creating a disease model of the world with far-reaching implications of what happens next in real life.

The Kerry incident here regarding Syria is a clear testament to what can happen on a global scale when questions have a constructive ring to them or aim to uncover possible solutions. It show us how constructive questions can create news, can drive major shifts in policy, and can inspire and force decision-makers to reflect, act differently, negotiate, compromise, and in fact serve society, which is the aim of elected office.

Kerry´s answer went around the world. Russia’s top political brass took action, contacted Syrian leadership and it resulted in a major shift in policy. A shift that will put a halt to yet another huge expenditure, stop an escalation of violence and save lives – and the breakthrough was a single reporter’s question.

Weeks later, Secretary Kerry himself seemed surprised by the impactful ripple effects of one constructive question aimed at him. Reflecting on what had spurred him to answer the question at the Syria press conference as he did, he told CBS’s 60 Minutes programme: “I didn’t walk into the room intending to say it … but Margaret Brennan asked a terrific question, it was a good question, it deserved an honest answer.”

Now here’s my question to you, reading this: Who will be next?

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