A viral news agency involved in the widely misreported coverage of Dutch teenager Noa Pothoven’s death is pitching news organisations with a follow-up story that makes fresh unsubstantiated claims about how she died and makes no mention of its original discredited story.
The latest story from the Central European News (CEN) agency, which it has pitched to national news desks as a “strong follow-up”, directly attributes Pothoven’s death to a “method … detailed in a Dutch guide on killing yourself that says it is in a legal grey zone best described as ‘self euthanasia’”.
Neither CEN’s email pitch nor the story itself make any mention of the agency’s role in wrongly reporting that the 17-year-old rape victim had been “legally euthanised”.
Several UK tabloid news sites, such as Mail Online and the Sun, picked up the original false story about Pothoven from CEN on Tuesday, and the stories quickly went viral as they spread across the internet with versions appearing in major English-language news outlets, including the Times of London, New York Post, and Washington Post.
But the Dutch authorities and Pothoven’s family called out the misreporting of her death, making clear that while she had made a request for euthanasia, which is legal under Dutch law, it had been rejected. She died at home on Sunday after refusing to eat and drink, and her parents and doctors agreed not to force-feed her.
CEN is owned by Michael Leidig and sells stories and photos to news outlets around the world. In 2015, a BuzzFeed News investigation, headlined the “The King of Bullshit News”, raised serious questions about the quality of some of its stories. Earlier this year, a New York district court judge dismissed a libel case brought by CEN and Leidig against BuzzFeed News over that story. CEN and Leidig are appealing the decision.
CEN and Leidig did not respond to a series of questions from BuzzFeed News, sent on Wednesday, about how it had come to misreport Noa Pothoven’s death as legal euthanasia.
On Thursday afternoon, with the controversy still raging over the failure of so many major news outlets to check the facts of the story before publishing it, CEN’s news editor sent an email to national news desks with a new pitch.
“Hi guys, I hope you are well,” he wrote. “Got a strong follow-up on the Dutch euthanasia story.”
He continued: “Dutch Rape Victims [sic] Death Described As Self-Euthanasia ... The method used by the Dutch teenage rape victim to end her life after she felt she could no longer go on living is detailed in a Dutch guide on killing yourself that says it is in a legal grey zone best described as ‘self euthanasia’.”
CEN’s 1,500-word follow-up, which makes a series of new claims about Pothoven’s death, has not appeared so far in the mainstream English-speaking press. A website called Viral Tab, which describes itself as a “news portal” for freelance journalists, has published it.
The story fails to acknowledge that CEN was one of the originators of the earlier story falsely claiming Pothoven had been legally euthanised. Its only nod to the debunking of the story is a line stating that there had been “intense speculation as to how she died”.
CEN’s new story then goes on to speculate she had died using a “method” detailed in two books from a Dutch psychiatrist and on a website from a ‘self-euthanasia support group’.
The report claims the books are “essential reading for advocates of ‘self-euthanasia’ and people who wish to die”, but provides no evidence that Pothoven read the books or visited the website.
According to CEN’s own story, the agency was unable to get comment from the mental health clinic or euthanasia clinic that Pothoven visited about the circumstances around her death. Regardless, CEN went on to report that because police were “not investigating any suspicious deaths”, it indicated the 17-year-old used a method recommended in the book.
“On Tuesday, when CEN contacted the police about the death which she had announced herself in advance and which therefore in the UK would be certainly regarded as an unnatural death, police confirmed they were not investigating any suspicious deaths, indicating the method chosen by Noa was the same as the one recommended in the book,” the news agency reported.
On Friday morning, BuzzFeed News sent Leidig a fresh set of questions about his agency’s reporting on Pothoven’s death, including what steps CEN had taken to verify the “self-euthanasia” story, whether it had issued a correction for the original false story, and whether he considered the agency’s continued coverage of her death to be “responsible journalism”.
He sent back a one-line statement: “Because our two firms are in a legal conflict, I am unable to comment on your request.”
In the Netherlands, the authorities and the friends and family of Pothoven have spoken out about the mainstream news outlets’ misreporting of the teen’s death.
Dutch MP Lisa Westerveld, who had previously visited Pothoven, tweeted on Wednesday: “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. I ask all media to respect the privacy of Noa’s family and let them grieve in peace.”
The MP spoke in Parliament yesterday about the support that is currently available to young people with mental illnesses.
She said that she spoke to Pothoven about the ways that support could be improved and that she visited her last week shortly before she died.
She said: “Last week she let me know she could no longer go on.
“On Friday I spoke with her again and not long after she went to sleep and she didn’t wake up. But I promised her that I would continue her fight for better youth care. And I said that her story and the stories of hundreds of other young people that are struggling in life are continued to be told.”
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.
Mark Di Stefano is a media and politics correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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Ikran is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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