Dutch teen Noa Pothoven wasn't euthanised this weekend. So why did the media say she was?

We need to talk about social media and reporting. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

On Tuesday afternoon, a story began to break across American and European outlets that a 17 year-old Dutch girl named Noa Pothoven was legally euthanised under the “end-of-life” laws in the Netherlands.

Doctors, ethicists and psychologists had apparently signed off on her right to die at home, saying her mental condition had made living “unbearable” as the young girl suffered from the trauma of multiple sexual assaults between the ages of 11-14. It sparked a challenging moral discussion – conservatives warned of the dangerous “slippery slope” that euthanisa rights pose, while those on both sides of the political spectrum argued that even the most severe mental health issues can “always get better”.

There was just one problem with this viral story of Noa Pothoven’s tragic euthanasia: it never actually happened.

Earlier today, Politico Europes Naomi O’Leary tweeted a thread debunking the reports from trusted outlets including The Daily Beast, the Independent, and Euronews. She clarified what actually happened:

“Noa Pothoven had been severely ill with anorexia and other conditions for some time. Without telling her parents, she sought and was refused euthanasia… The family had tried many kinds of psychiatric treatment and Noa Pothoven was repeatedly hospitalised… a hospital bed was set up at home in the care of her parents. At the start of June she began refusing all fluids and food, and her parents and doctors agreed not to force feed her. A decision to move to palliative care and not to force feed at the request of the patient is not euthanasia.”

O’Leary also noted that the Dutch media had not reported the instance as euthanasia. Yet English reporters began to do so. A preliminary check into Dutch reports – and simply speaking to someone who had been following the story for the last year – showed that this was a very different case.

Why was O’Leary the first English-speaking reporter to actually look further into such a sensitive case? And why is no one digging beyond what they see circulating on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram?

This, for the media, is nothing new. In September 2017, a story began to make the rounds about a notorious Edinburgh University student and self-styled “thinker” Robbie Travers. Travers claimed on his popular Facebook page that he was under investigation by the University for mocking ISIS, a story that was subsequently picked up by alt-right news outlet InfoWars. The free-speech related outrage spread to mainstream outlets and received huge coverage in the Independent, the Daily Mail, and even the Times.

Similar to Pothoven’s story, the Travers situation sparked public moral outcry and became the foundation for numerous think pieces across swathes of the British media. Their common line of argument focussed on the insanity of a university gagging free speech that criticised terrorism –  until a reporter from BuzzFeed News quite easily debunked the myth that this ever happened. 

As it turns out, Travers wasn’t under fire for comments about ISIS at all, but entirely different violations of the student code of conduct. The University explicitly stated that, in fact, they would never under any circumstances penalise students for criticising any terrorist group. So how did this story end up becoming a mainstream viral sensation? Because BuzzFeed was the first, and seemingly the only, publication to actually ring the University of Edinburgh to ask about what was happening, rather than basing a story off an infamously unstable person’s Facebook posts claiming he had been done wrong. It took days for people to realise that Travers’ claim was entirely false, but no one took the time to ask in the first place. 

Stories like that of Travers can dominate an entire news cycle, despite flouting the most basic of journalistic practices. The same goes for this recent bout of uninvestigated reporting into Noa Pothoven’s death. Sometimes even the most trusted and reliable news outlets get things wrong. This is an inevitable, albeit problematic, part of journalism. But misreporting euthanasia is an entirely different type of story. It’s one driven by an interest in capturing voyeuristic hate clicks, sparking outrage, and flooding opinion sections and comment threads. This drive for engagement muddies the most important element of a controversial story: accuracy. Rather than functioning in the public interest, such stories are intended purely to serve the interests of the publication. 

Reporters need to remember the danger of this shallow type of journalism. And, really, above all else, they need to stop relying on social media as the first and final source for reporting controversial stories. Noa Pothoven's story is one of heartbreaking tragedy – the least that could be done is do the five seconds of work needed to report it accurately.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.