This week we talked with Monique Calello, the health reporter for the Staunton News Leader.
Calello talks to us about the difficulty, but necessity, of reporting stories that are hard to hear, her take on solutions journalism, her most memorable pieces and spending time with her daughter.
To start, please introduce yourself and tell us a little about where you work, what you do there and where you were before that.
My name is Monique Calello, and I’m the health reporter at the Staunton News Leader in the USA Today Network.
I started at the News Leader six years ago working on our entertainment magazine. I guess you could say I’ve come full circle. After graduating from Boston University, my first job was at a weekly newspaper that covered towns in the Boston area. When the family sold the newspaper, most of us found other jobs and I switched to book publishing where I spent many years as an editor in college and trade publishing in Boston and New York City.
Then I became a mother to a beautiful girl with autism and had to take time away from my career to focus on helping her which involved intensive therapy for many years. It made all the difference. Not everyone can do that, but I was lucky to have enough freelance jobs so that I could make life work while helping my daughter reach her potential in those critical early years.
I’ve been fortunate to work with and learn from a small but incredibly talented group of journalists at the News Leader. I love my work. I am constantly learning and expanding my perspective. I love being able to do something that brings about change for the better. I can’t think of any better way to pay it forward.
“I love being able to do something that brings about change for the better. I can’t think of any better way to pay it forward.”
It can be very difficult. I know the information I’m going to share will be upsetting for people in the community. They will immediately think of neighbors and friends, so what I attempt to do is give them a place to go, resources and next steps so they don’t feel overwhelmed and helpless when they discover our area has a serious problem.
The other challenge is getting people to open up about situations that are understandably very private. No one is a stranger in a small town. It takes courage for someone to come forward and say this happened to me.
After talking with several families, with elder abuse there is a lot of shame. No matter what you did to protect your parents or grandparents, they still fell victim to abuse. With children who need psychiatric help, there is a stigma attached to mental illness so finding faces is a challenge and parents don’t want their children in the news. In order to write these stories, I spend time with people who tackle the issues every day and then research into how other areas are solving these problems to offer solutions.
Solutions journalism is a newer school of thought in the journalism world. Do you think it’s a responsible practice to “rebalance” the news with harder news and potential fixes for the problem being reported?
I think solutions journalism gives the public an opportunity to engage and do something with information and evidence provided in a story. I see an evidence-based solution as another piece of information that helps to complete the entire picture. If an individual or organization has found a way to solve a problem why not present this as evidence? Sometimes evidence is a federally funded program to address the shortage of medical professionals in a rural area. Sometimes evidence is a person demonstrating how a medicine significantly improved her health. Both present potential solutions. If we categorize them, one falls into hard news while the other is considered feel-good news. I think they both are a responsible practice.
What’s been one story you’ve done while at the NL that’s stuck with you? What about it makes it memorable?
I have a few stories that are memorable for very different reasons, even silly reasons.
I still laugh when I think about a story I wrote that went viral with a headline that read Virginia Senate passes medical marijuana 40-0, and the most popular comment on Reddit was, “don’t you mean 42-0?”
A few years ago, I wrote about a documentary based on a farm in our area. Ultimately, we had a viewing at our local cinema for the community. That evening was a significant moment for me. I got to experience firsthand genuinely connecting with the people in our community and seeing what happens when you get people to take action, even if that action is getting them all out for a film and discussion. It was a fun night for the News Leader and a great night for me.
I’m also still thinking about the story I wrote about the severe shortage of child psychiatrists in our area. What makes it memorable for me is that people don’t want to read these stories, and I want them to pay attention to this issue.
This is a much bigger conversation than one story, and it expands into many different areas. I feel I wrote a strong investigative piece on the issue. People are now aware of the problem, but I can’t seem to let go of something one of the doctors said to me. A therapist said that if a child had a broken leg and didn’t receive care for two months, social media would explode. People would be protesting. But if a child with mental illness needs immediate care and has to wait two months for help, that barely raises an eyebrow.
I feel like I haven’t finished telling that story yet.
Do you think this is a challenge unique to health reporters? Trying to convey the significance of an issue that people do not want to hear about?
I see this challenge happening in other beats, especially if there is a stigma or you’re addressing social and political issues that are not in alignment with a person’s beliefs.
What are your interests outside of newspapering?
I’m a proud single mom of a child with special needs so most of my interests are a team effort. Last year, my daughter was part of a program for kids with disabilities at a local university. After 12 years of not being able to swim, we got to celebrate that milestone. Now we spend a few nights a week at our local gym having fun together in the pool. Come warm weather, we love to go hiking or drive through the mountains with the car windows down and the radio playing. We are surrounded by beauty in the Valley and we love our festivals. We live downtown so most of the time we’re walking around, stopping by the farmer’s market or stopping in shops to say hello to familiar faces.
On my own, I love to spend time cooking with friends. Some of my best friendships have been made in the kitchen. My daughter is into cooking, too, so we are having fun trying out new recipes, even if she doesn’t actually eat half of them. We are also part of a computer/video gaming group for kids on the spectrum that teaches skills for rewarding careers. I’m passionate about seeing kids with special needs not just reach their potential but do something that will make them happy as adults. Chronic depression is a problem for adults with autism, and I think they just aren’t given the chance to do what they are capable of doing. I see the shift slowly happening, and it is so encouraging. Another college nearby has IEPs for college students. My daughter even got to co-pilot a plane last summer. The future looks bright.
Monique Calello was recently named a finalist for beat coverage in the second- and fourth-quarter USA Today Network journalism awards for her stories on elder abuse and the pediatric health crisis in the Valley. She has also received certificates of merit from the Virginia Press Association for feature story writing and feature writing portfolio in 2015-2017.