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Retracting a published story – the Internet never forgets

The stampede of the affluent into grim-faced, highly competitive sports has been a tragicomedy of perverse incentives.

The Atlantic has retracted a story about competitive niche sports, two weeks after publication in its November 2020 magazine, by replacing the original story with an over 900-word retraction notice and apology from the editor.

The story, The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League-Obsessed Parents, was authored by Ruth Shalit Barrett whom the publication admits had: “deceived The Atlantic and its readers about a section of the story that concerns a person referred to as ‘Sloane.'”

Barrett, the retraction reveals, had previously been associated with problematic journalism in “1999, when she was known by Ruth Shalit,” says The Atlantic, adding “she left The New Republic after plagiarism and inaccurate reporting were discovered in her work.

Barrett deserved a second chance to write feature stories such as this one. We were wrong to make this assignment, however.

“We decided to assign Barrett this freelance story in part because more than two decades separated her from her journalistic malpractice at The New Republic and because in recent years her work has appeared in reputable magazines.”

“We took into consideration the argument that Barrett deserved a second chance to write feature stories such as this one. We were wrong to make this assignment, however. It reflects poor judgment on our part, and we regret our decision.”

The Atlantic took action after Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple wrote about the article questioning several facts in the article from a source named Sloane adding: “We know that we’re nitpicking. But when the former Ruth Shalit is writing for your publication, you nail down all Olympic-size claims.”

But despite the allegations of factual inaccuracies, the story remains available to readers in PDF form linked in the retraction text, making any alleged potential inaccuracies still accessible to readers.

The story, it is revealed in the retraction, was fact-checked by The Atlantic prior to publication, with Sloane as well as other sources but, “the checking of some details of Sloane’s story relied solely on interviews and other communications with Sloane or her husband or both of them,” The Atlantic admits.

When we asked Barrett about these allegations, she initially denied them, saying that Sloane had told her she had a son, and that she had believed Sloane. The next day, when we questioned her again, she admitted that she was “complicit” in “compounding the deception” and that “it would not be fair to Sloane” to blame her alone for deceiving The Atlantic.

No publication should be condemned for giving journalists a second chance, and The Atlantic specifically applied fact checking for this story.

It is regrettable that the fact checkers were deceived by the source known as Sloane in this case, and also regrettable that the process didn’t flag questions about the veracity of facts by independent experts.

But what is relevant is that once revealed as questionable, the story wasn’t hidden away or quietly removed from the Internet, it was replaced in online form by the retraction text and the January/February 2021 edition of the magazine led with a similar retraction text in the editorial page.

In fact, the only remaining problem here might be the decision to link to a PDF of the original story’s text.

What do you think? Should the offending text be removed where possible in situations like this, or is it a matter of record that it remains available albeit through links clearly marked with a disclaimer?