How a fake news story about euthanasia fooled the world's media

A young Dutch woman whose death was widely reported as a legally approved euthanasia had actually been rejected for the controversial procedure.

Instead, 17-year-old Noa Pothoven died after refusing food and drink for several days, Dutch media reported.

"There is a lot of misinformation in international press about the tragic death of Noa. Her friends and family want people to know that she did not die of euthanasia," said Lisa Westerveld, a Dutch MP who visited Noa before she died.

"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," the end-of-life clinic which rejected her application to die said in a statement. "To stop her suffering, she has stopped eating and drinking."

Noa Pothoven.
Noa Pothoven. Photo credit: Noa Pothoven/Instagram

But how did the English-speaking media - Newshub included - get the story so wrong?

Noa's death was initially reported by local newspaper de Gelderlander, which covers news from the Gelderland region in the Netherlands' east. That report clearly stated she'd been rejected for euthanasia, which has been legal in the Netherlands under strict criteria since 2002.

"They think I'm too young to die," Pothaven told the paper when she was 16. "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."

Noa was sexually abused when she was 11 and raped at 14, and had reportedly suffered major psychological problems since - including depression and anorexia. She wrote a book about her experiences, Winnen of Leren (Winning or Learning), which was a best-seller in 2018.

The Netherlands' biggest newspaper, De Telegraaf, didn't cover the story until after she died - and only then because the pope commented on it.

Euronews correction
Corrections came thick and fast. Photo credit: Euronews

But by then, English-speaking media had jumped on the story - Euronews, the Daily Mail and news.com.au first out of the gate according to Politico journalist Naomi O'Leary, who said it would have been "an enormous deal" if true.

"Dutch media did not report that Pothoven died of euthanasia. But the English-language reporting of the story did, even as they cited Dutch news reports that did not speak of euthanasia," she wrote.

"The simple falsehood spread around the world at lightning speed, as news organisations copied and republished the story without stopping to check the facts."

She got in touch with local Dutch journalist Paul Bolwerk, who'd been covering Noa's tragic life since last year. He confirmed Noa had gone behind her parents' backs to seek euthanasia, but was turned down.

"It took me about 10 mins to check with the reporter who wrote the original Dutch story," O'Leary wrote on Twitter.

The false reporting wasn't limited to tabloid papers like the Mail - even the Washington Post had to run a correction after O'Leary published her findings on Politico. Newshub's article credited the false facts to "reports", without citing a specific source - which in the fast-paced, click-driven environment of modern news reporting, is relatively common.

Noa died days after giving up all food and liquids. O'Leary said according to Dutch law, the fact no one stopped her doesn't make it euthanasia - which requires an "active intervention".

"The truth is clear: Pothoven sought euthanasia, and she was refused."

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