Shortly after lunchtime on Tuesday, one of the world’s biggest English-language news outlets, Mail Online, published a story about the death of a Dutch teenager named Noa Pothoven.
Deploying one of the news outlet’s trademark long, outrage-inducing headlines, the website claimed: “Dutch girl, 17, who was sexually abused at 11 and raped as a 14-year-old is legally euthanised at her home by ‘end-of-life’ clinic because she felt her life was unbearable due to depression.”
The story about Pothoven being “legally euthanised”, complete with Instagram tributes from the 17-year-old’s sister, soon spread across other English-speaking online news outlets.
In less than 24 hours, versions of the story were written by the Sun, the Daily Star, the Independent, UNILAD, Sky News, the Times, the Italian press, the Australian News Corp-owned News.com.au, the New York Post, the Daily Beast, NBC-part-owned Euronews, and the Washington Post.
They weren’t just referencing Mail Online’s story. Some didn’t attribute the information to anywhere.
Even the BBC’s World Service did a segment about Pothoven’s “euthanasia”, with a correspondent giving an important caveat midway through the interview: “I should make it clear, we’re not entirely certain about how [she] actually died.”
It didn’t matter, because the story about the Dutch teen who had been “legally euthanised” clocked hundreds of thousands of shares on Facebook and countless retweets on Twitter, becoming the biggest story in the world. According to the Mail Online’s display, the story had been shared a staggering 124,000 times.
By Wednesday, the story was front-page news in Italy and was so dominating the internet conversation that the pope appeared to weigh in with a subtweet.
“Euthanasia and assisted suicide are a defeat for all,” @Pontifex wrote on Twitter. “We are called never to abandon those who are suffering, never giving up but caring and loving to restore hope.”
But amid all the online outrage and all the pageviews, it appears all the media outlets that ran the story missed a key fact.
On Wednesday, thanks to the diligence of Politico Europe reporter Naomi O’Leary, the truth finally started to emerge outside of the Netherlands: Noa Pothoven had not been “legally euthanised” at all.
She had requested euthanasia under Dutch law but had been refused. She died at home after refusing to eat, and her parents and doctors agreed not to force-feed her, offering her palliative care instead.
After O’Leary used her Twitter feed to lay out the facts of the story and call out the outlets that had unquestioningly gone with the false version, those outlets quickly began changing headlines, rewriting copy, and deleting sentences.
Some added notes at the end of the story explaining how it had been corrected. Others did not.
So how did the inaccurate version of the story get into the internet’s bloodstream and travel so widely? According to several sources, the Mail Online foreign news desk had taken the story about Pothoven’s death from a small British news agency called Central European News (CEN).
Owned by Michael Leidig, CEN sells stories and photos from around the world to some of the biggest English-speaking outlets in the news business.
A 2015 BuzzFeed News investigation into CEN and Leidig, titled “The King of Bullshit News “, raised questions about the reliability of the information being sold by the company.
Earlier this year, a district court judge in New York dismissed a libel case brought against BuzzFeed News by Leidig and CEN over the publication of the story.
Both Leidig and CEN are appealing the decision.
BuzzFeed News has sent a series of questions to Leidig about how the news agency had come to distribute a distorted story about Pothoven’s death. At the time of publication, Leidig had not responded.
Despite the media’s misrepresentation of her death, Noa Pothoven’s story remains a tragic one. Pothoven was 17 when she died in her home on Sunday, refusing fluids and food since the beginning of June. According to local Dutch media, her parents and doctor agreed to not force-feed her.
Last year it was reported that Pothoven applied for euthanasia or assisted suicide at an end-of-life clinic in The Hague, but her request was rejected.
A spokesperson for the clinic told DutchNews that they could not confirm or deny that she was actually a patient: “There are very few young adults in euthanasia clinics, and it’s even rarer to see them for psychiatric reasons. Euthanasia of someone who is 60 is very different to that of someone who is 16. But we follow the law, which says someone must be in unbearable suffering with no other alternative.”
In a statement published to their website, the end-of-life clinic say they’ve been inundated with requests for comment following the death of Pothoven, and said that due to privacy rules, they can’t make any statement about this.
They wrote: “To put an end to incorrect reporting (in foreign media in particular) about her death, we refer to the statement made by friends of Noa this afternoon: Noa Pothoven did not die of euthanasia.
“To stop her suffering, she has stopped eating and drinking. De Levenseindekliniek deals exclusively with euthanasia and does so explicitly within the Dutch legal framework.”
The law in the Netherlands for euthanasia is careful with very strict guidelines, and the penalty for unlawful euthanasia can lead to 12 years’ imprisonment. The number of cases of death by euthanasia fell 9% last year. However, end-of-life clinics have been getting more requests from people under 30.
The Royal Dutch Medical Association (RDMA) have released a statement saying that the international media have misrepresented the death of Pothoven.
They wrote: “The RDMA feels the urge to correct the misreporting, because it gives a wrong impression of Dutch law and practice.
“Under Dutch law, euthanasia is defined as the active termination of life, by a physician, at a patient’s voluntary and well-informed request. Euthanasia can be performed under strict conditions on persons who suffer unbearably and hopeless from a medical condition.”
Pothoven wrote an autobiography titled Winnen of Leren (win or learn) that originally started off as a diary. In the book, she detailed what happened when she was sexually assaulted multiple times starting at 11 years old and later raped at 14. She also spoke of her struggles with PTSD, anorexia, depression, and the way the country provides support for young people.
In December 2018, she spoke to de Gelderlander about not wanting to live any longer. She said: “They think I’m too young to die. They think I should complete the trauma treatment and that my brain must first be fully grown. That lasts until you are 21. I’m devastated because I can’t wait that long anymore.”
She told VICE NL just three months ago about how she hopes her book will reform how young people in mental health crises are treated.
She said: “Through my book new questions will be asked over how youth care is organised.
“Soon I am going to be speaking to a juvenile judge who has read my book, if you are at risk of being admitted [into isolation] the juvenile court decides that.
“As a young person you will then also have a lawyer, who will speak in your best interests. The sitting in a courtroom has made a huge effect on me. I sat there like I was a criminal, though I’ve never stolen a sweet. As far as I’m concerned, depressed young people shouldn’t go to court.”
On Sunday, Pothoven died in her living room, and she wrote a final post on Instagram where she said “Love is letting go”.
Politico’s Naomi O’Leary, the journalist who posted the viral Twitter thread calling out the coverage, told BuzzFeed News she was initially shocked to read the English-language coverage of Pothoven’s death.
“I was seeing how enormous it was, and like thinking, ‘where does it say this is euthanasia, where is this reporting coming from?’ None of the Dutch language news reports say euthanasia.'” she said. “If it was euthanasia it would be the massive story in the Netherlands.”
O’Leary said the story about a raped teen being “legally euthanised” was helped along by negative perceptions of the Netherlands and a “bad stereotype” of a liberal country where “anything goes”.
“The stereotypes that the world has of the Netherlands as being this wildly liberal place, where anything can happen,” she said. “This stereotype helped people jump to the conclusion that this is what had happen[ed].
“It spread like wildfire because it feeds into the euthanasia debate.
“It’s such a shocking story, it’s shocking anyway, it makes people pause and say, ‘do we really want that to be legal?'”
In the wake of the thread, mainstream media outlets that had misreported the death quickly starting making significant changes to their stories.
The Mail Online changed words and sentences, including a subtle headline change, removing “legally euthanised” and adding “legally allowed”. The Independent, New York Post, Washington Post, and Daily Beast made changes with small clarifications appended to their stories. The Washington Post deleted a tweet which claimed she was “euthanized”.
UNILAD, one of Britain’s top publishers of videos and news content to Facebook, posted a detailed correction, including outlining the original errors, at the top of its story: “This article was originally published containing false or misleading information. It was originally reported Noa Pothoven, a 17-year-old woman from the Netherlands had died by euthanasia. This is not true. A mistranslation from the original Dutch story led to an assumption of euthanasia.”
Euronews, partly owned by NBC, launched an internal inquiry. In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a Euronews spokesperson said its story was published without fact-checking, and was going off the reporting of other news outlets.
“The story was removed from our website on Wednesday morning, as soon as we became aware of concerns about the reliability of the information,” the spokesperson said.
“It became clear subsequently that Euronews’ reporting guidelines had not been followed in this instance (the piece was picked up from another media outlet without further checks, which is against our reporting guidelines) and the article has been corrected as we work to verify the circumstances around Noa Pothoven’s death.
“A full inquiry is being made into exactly why the reporting guidelines were not followed and appropriate action will be taken to prevent this from happening again.”
Following all this international coverage of the story, members of the media have been contacting the family, who have said through a Dutch outlet that they will not be having any interviews. Noa’s father told the AD that the family wants radio silence following her story going viral.
He told the paper: “We are in complete mourning for Noa and we can’t do that in the media, and we don’t want to have this hassle. We want nothing to do with this. We want to rest.”
Pothoven’s mother said she hopes her daughter’s book becomes compulsory for social workers, but also for child judges and municipalities, who are responsible for youth care.
Pothoven’s personal Instagram page appears to have been deleted.
If you’re in the UK and want to talk, you can contact the Samaritans 24/7 for free on 116 123, even from a mobile without credit. This number won’t show up on your phone bill. International suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org. The US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. You can also text TALK to 741741 for free, anonymous 24/7 crisis support in the US from the Crisis Text Line.