The actual meaning of ‘in your own words’

Posted: September 3, 2013 in Writing
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Having worked in journalism for 23 years and taught at various media schools for the past six, I’ve seen a lot of cases of plagiarism and fabrication of news. Some of the instances have been so blatant that I have really marvelled at the writer’s total disregard for ethics. I guess a lot of it has to do with our own mentality and our sense of right and wrong.

If one believes there’s nothing wrong with copying and pasting a paragraph from somewhere or someone else’s work, then one seriously needs to introspect on whether one is in the right profession. I’ve seen reporters picking up entire stories from foreign publications and passing these off as their own, after making the mandatory required changes in place, name and incidents! I once caught a reporter who lifted entire reports thrice! He had me fooled twice, till I went on Google and discovered the truth. Thank God for Google and Fact Checker!

Of course, there have been journalists and editors who have either lost their jobs or have been ‘outed’ in the public domain for doing that. Some of them continued in their jobs after expressing regret for ‘inadvertently’ sourcing their material from somewhere else. Can one really copy a report or even a part of it inadvertently?  But this post is not about famous people and their transgressions.

This post is about youngsters who think there is nothing wrong in copying material from the Internet.  I see some of my media students blatantly lift stuff and try to pass it off as their own. I have often given a zero or sometimes a 1/10 to some who have done that and a couple of them have tried to brazen it out, only to realise that they have taken on the wrong person!  They have complained in writing to the director of a media institute against me, only to have it blow up in their face. Like I always say in my classes – a little exaggeration is okay, but blatantly lifting from somewhere is unpardonable!

And this malaise runs deep – right down to the school level. The newspaper I work for recently started a contributory column for school children. They were given a few topics and asked to write an essay “in your own words”. I was appalled and alarmed to see so many children just copy entire reports from websites and send it to us, as their own. I wonder whether the expression “in your own words”, got lost in translation! I am sure every nine or ten-year-old boy understands the meaning of that. Don’t parents see what their children are up to? Or have we reached a stage where nine- year-olds function without any supervision from parents?

I have turned away quite a few such pieces that have been forwarded to me for publication. We are going to call up the parents and speak to them about it. My editor and I both agree on this point that if they are not told now, their children will continue to think it’s okay to copy. We published quite a few original pieces and some others that had some of the content ‘lifted’, because I understand that it is not easy for children to have all that information in their heads. It is only when the entire content was brazenly copied that I put my foot down.

I remember my son writing a really short fictional story when he was in Class II. Having poured through all the mythological comics we had given him, he invented the names and characters and made up a short story! The journalist in me initially refused to believe he had written it himself! He was almost in tears when he realised I didn’t believe him. Of course, a bear hug at finding that his work was completely original wiped away his tears!

  1. Ayesha says:

    One of the first things I ever remember writing was a story when I was in Grade 1. I read an Enid Blyton short story and I didn’t like the ending. So I rewrote the whole thing. And even then I understood that It wasn’t my story.

    As a writer, this issue of plagiarism strikes close to home because it’s extremely unpleasant to find your hard work stolen blatantly.

    Kids these days truly need to be taught that just because information is freely available, it doesn’t mean it’s yours to steal.

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