Lisa Kernek, past reporter and current assistant professor of Journalism at Western Illinois University is dressed in professional purples and grays as she stands in front of the classroom. Her brown, shoulder length hair frames her high-cheekbones as she admits that she has brought an embarrassing PowerPoint presentation that she shows her college students.
She flicks to the first slide. A small girl holds up her middle finger in an old newspaper. “This is me when I was 4, holding up my middle finger to the world,” she laughs.
She caught her middle finger in her scooter’s handlebars, the handle was cut off by a hacksaw. The picture was taken on the porch steps of her home in England.
Kernek was born in Australia, moving to England at the age of 2, and moving to the United States at the age of 5. “My father, [a history professor], had two job offers,” she says, “either Macomb or Lafayette, IN.” Her mom made the decision for them, choosing the Midwest.
At a young age, Kernek thought she might pursue a career in art. “I thought about being an artist until a teacher told me I had no artistic talent.”
Kernek decided when she was 16 that she would be a reporter. She wrote for the school newspaper and took journalism classes in high school. However, the news room is the reason she decided to be a reporter. “This is gonna sound like a dumb reason to choose a career, but I thought the news room was such a fun place to work in.”
As a reporter for several newspapers from 1989-2006, Kernek has witnessed the evolution of technology. She explains the process of writing in her earlier years. “We had to type all our stories twice and then type [four spaces] to justify it—like how many spaces to finish the column. Then you have to go back, and it was very tedious.”
Even the idea of editing on a computer seemed other-worldy to Kernek. “I remember taking a photojournalism class in college and my teacher said, ‘Someday everything will be edited on a computer.’ It seemed so futuristic to me.”
Kernek stands at the front of the classroom as she answers questions from a set of Lincoln Land Community College students in a Journalism 101 class.
She gives advice on the beginning of a news article, called the lead. “I suggest that you start with an anecdotal lead or a descriptive scene setter lead showing the person in their work environment.”
When asked about how to successfully use quotes, she advises, “Quotes are most powerful when you use them really sparingly. Just use your best ones.”
In interest to brevity, narrow paragraphs down to one or two sentences.
The most common mistake Kernek sees in the classroom is the transition from term paper to news story. Students are often accustomed to ending a paper with a summarizing paragraph. In journalism, there is to be no summary—it is seen as wasted space.
Other mistakes that she deems as “pet peeves” are grammar slip-ups. She hates it when the words “definitely” and “defiantly” are mixed up, when “comprise” and “compose” are misused and when “lying” and “laying” are not in proper form.
However, she focuses on the concept of just getting what one can on the paper. “The first draft is going to be pretty mediocre. The writing is in the rewriting.”
Kernek says the best way to end a news story is by closing with a quote, an image, or the subject’s plan for the future.
She tucks her hair behind her ear and looks into the eyes of a dozen aspiring journalists. She looks strikingly similar to the young brunette holding up her middle finger to the camera. Bluntly, she says, “Give yourself permission to be terrible.”