Researcher warns about family murder reporting

20th November 2007, Comments 0 comments

20 November 2007, AMSTERDAM - Contrary to popular perception, there is no "wave" of family killings taking place in the Netherlands, Dutch psychologist and criminologist Marieke Liem told Deutsche Presse- Agentur dpa on Monday.

20 November 2007

AMSTERDAM - Contrary to popular perception, there is no "wave" of family killings taking place in the Netherlands, Dutch psychologist and criminologist Marieke Liem told Deutsche Presse- Agentur dpa on Monday.

Familicides also do not occur more frequently today than they did in the past.

Liem was commenting after Dutch media reports Sunday about a 38- year-old divorced father who had allegedly killed his two children aged 2 and 5 and then committed suicide in the south of the country.

Several Dutch media immediately referred to the event as "another instance of a desperate divorced father who killed himself and his children." But Liem warns about such blanket statements.

"I do not want to sound cynical or sceptical about media," said Liem, "but concerning familicide and filicide, media do indeed play a problematic role."

Filicide is when a parent first kills his child or children and then commits suicide. Familicide is when someone kills his children but also a former spouse before committing suicide.

"Between 1992 and 2006 there have been 20 instances of filicide in the Netherlands, just over one case per year. There have been nine instances of familicide in the Netherlands in the past 15 years. That is less than once per year," Liem points out.

Liem, born in 1982, is affiliated with the Willem Pompe Institute for Criminal Law and Criminology, a research institute of the Royal University of Utrecht.

Earlier this year she presented a study on homicide and domestic violence in the Netherlands.

The study, which she did together with colleague Frans Koenraadt, was the first extensive research on the topic in the Netherlands.

"Based on the statistical material available to us, we found that the total number of familicide and filicide did not increase or decrease in the past 15 years," says Liem.

"Interestingly, there are three times as many instances in which someone kills his partner or former partner, than there are instances during which people kill their children. But it's the latter that attract almost exclusive media attention."

Liem says media attention is not only disproportionate with the frequency of such killings, but may also have an adverse effect on the occurrence of similar dramas.

"In 1996, we saw a number of familicides and filicides in the Netherlands that were widely reported. Over time, a debate rose in the media about the effects of such reports. People feared it might have a so-called Werther effect."

She was referring to the classic novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, written by 18th-century German author Johann Wolfgang Goethe. In the book, the main character, Werther, commits suicide. Following its publication there was a wave of suicides among young people, many of whom were found with the book still in their hands.

That is also why Dutch politicians have long argued for more subdued media reports about suicides, familicides, and filicides. In 2006, Parliament debated ways to restrict the media reports.

"We do not know if there is a causal relationship between media reports about familicides and filicides and their subsequent occurrence," says Liem. "It has not been researched properly. But we also do not want to risk a similar phenomenon.

"Personally," the researcher adds, "I would argue for very reserved media reporting about familicides and filicides.

Another problem, says Liem, is that journalists often fail to differentiate between the types of killings.

"All killings are referred to as 'family dramas.' In practice, the background, context, and motives often differ substantially. That is why the public often gets the impression family killings occur much more frequently than they actually do," she said.

"It is very difficult to get a clear picture about the total number of familicides and filicides in the Netherlands. The registration of homicides in the Netherlands has been only fragmentary until 1992."

The Central Bureau of Statistics relied exclusively on death reports provided to them by pathologists, without collecting information independently, she pointed out.

In the 1990s, Dutch reporter Gerlof Leistra and researcher Paul Nieuwberta developed a special method to categorise all homicides in the Netherlands. They combined data provided by the Dutch police, the prosecution and several others to develop a new registration system.

"It is a major improvement compared with what we had before, but even today the Dutch registration system of homicides cannot be compared with that of, say, Britain, Scandinavian countries, or Switzerland," Liem said.

She said Dutch privacy laws made it difficult to connect databases and computers and follow peoples' movements in a detailed way.

"In Sweden, one can follow each citizen from birth to death. There are set procedures to get someone's medical records and other personal files. In the Netherlands, this is often very difficult."

[Copyright dpa 2007]

Subject: Dutch news

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