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The Lessons of Tragedy

In the wake of the Oct. 1 shooting, UNLV academics found new avenues for study. In the process, they’re helping our community explore the issues and heal from the trauma.

Campus News  |  Sep 25, 2018  |  By Jason Scavone
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Rituals, such as a Dia de los Muertos ofrenda, offer UNLV history professors insights into how communities deal with tragedy. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

Editor's Note: 

This is the first story in a series that will be published this week on the UNLV community and its work related to the Oct. 1 mass shooting.

It was a Sunday night.

There was much to do the next day. So Stephen Benning retired early and slept through it.

The horror unfurled surprisingly slowly on television news. For more than an hour, on every channel, the lower-third chyrons would only confirm two dead and anywhere from a handful to dozens injured. As the clock inched into the first minutes of Oct. 2, the scope of what had started just two hours earlier became clearer. Anyone still up was in for a long night, watching the same updates repeat like an unwanted mantra.

By the next morning, the magnitude of the chaos and carnage would become apparent. But in that brief window from 10 p.m. until just before midnight on Oct. 1, it was possible, just for a moment, to think that the reports were a sensational overreaction.

“When I woke up and got messages from my parents saying ‘I hope no one you knew was involved in the shooting,’ it didn’t even connect for me initially,” Benning said. “As time went on, it was, ‘OK, this is serious. This is on a scale we’ve never seen before.’”

And an idea began percolating.

As he grappled with the tragedy as an individual, the psychology professor wondered how he might use his expertise to help. By that Friday, Benning announced his intentions in meeting for his Psychophysiology of Emotion and Personality Lab: to survey shooting victims and community members over the course of a year, using narrative psychology. It would be a first-of-its-kind study analyzing the psychological fallout of a mass casualty event.

He wasn’t the only member of the UNLV academic community to spring into action in the wake of the Route 91 tragedy. From psychology and journalism to University Libraries and history, UNLV’s academics have tried to find ways to make sense of the shooting for the people affected by it.

The Surprise of Gratitude

Benning’s study was fast-tracked through the Institutional Review Board by Monday, leaving him and his team the task of convincing victims and community members to sign up for the study. 

They emailed UNLV listservs, got in front of television news cameras, put out the call in Facebook groups, and posted fliers at Route 91 events looking for volunteers. Around 50 concert attendees and 120 community members eventually responded. 

Benning and a dozen or so graduate assistants and colleagues used a technique called narrative psychology — essentially, asking victims and community members alike to write their stories in their own words, starting with just a few prompts. The team measured symptoms of post-traumatic stress and depression, and subjective well-being at one month after the event and then 45 days, three months, six months, and one year later.

After six months, Benning started to discover something he hadn’t anticipated at the outset of the study.

“There seemed to be a spike in gratitude in our well-being measures right after it happened,” he said. “Then it sort of settled back down, but overall, people’s well-being didn’t seem to change a whole lot with this. That was a heartening finding.”

People in the Las Vegas community had higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder compared to the general population, and people at the festival had many more symptoms than the community. The general well-being of people in the community had returned to normal after six months.

Benning found that the biggest help for festival attendees was having strong social support. People who routinely faced criticism in their lives had a much harder time processing the trauma; those with a higher level of support fared significantly better. Surprisingly, though, the positive effects of support took longer to manifest compared to how quickly criticism had negative effects.

“I had expected that, after this kind of tragedy, people might feel overall that there was less meaning in their lives, that their sense of well-being might be decreased,” Benning said. “The fact that there wasn’t that kind of substantial reaction — that if anything, there’s a spike in gratitude — was a pleasant surprise. I thought [criticism and support] would go at about the same chronology, and I thought it would be relatively quick. I thought social support would really help [quickly] buffer symptoms, but it seems that wasn’t the case.” 

After the 12-month follow-up, Benning and his team will index the data to break down the general way these stories are either redemptive or contaminative — do they tell stories about a bad thing that goes good, or a good thing that goes bad? 

Already, Benning’s group has presented some of the findings at the Nevada Psychological Association, and one undergraduate researcher, Amanda Mraz, is using the study as the basis of her Honors College thesis. 

But poring over all these stories doesn’t come easy, even for researchers.

“It’s not something you can plop down in one day and do. It takes a while to process. When we go and start coding them, I’m not going to say to people, ‘OK here are 200 stories to process.’ You have to give yourself a bit of a brain break.”

This type of study on a mass casualty event has never been attempted as quickly after the tragedy as Benning's. Even during the Sept. 11 attacks, researchers waited months or sometimes years after the fact to begin their studies.

At the outset, there were researchers who were worried that asking victims to recount the events of the shooting so soon would cause more harm than good. But that turned out to not be the case, and now future researchers have a trove of data on the immediate effects of this kind of trauma, as well as a new way of helping people process it.

“It will allow people to recognize writing about it isn’t necessarily detrimental even right when it happens,” he said.

Exploring Tragedy through Big Data

Thomas Padilla’s first day at UNLV was Oct. 2. The visiting digital research services librarian hadn’t even acclimated to his new office before being tasked with helping Special Collections and Archives spring into action. 

The preservation arm of University Libraries plays a key role in preserving documents related to Southern Nevada for researchers around the world. Special Collections immediately got in contact with the Nevada State Museum and Clark County Museum to figure out a plan to work collaboratively on the Remembering 1 October project. The other two institutions would worry about collecting physical material. Special Collections focused on collecting material through: 

  • Its Oral History Center, which has conducted 50 interviews from concert attendees, first responders, and community members and plans to keep interviewing people through late 2019 or early 2020
  • An archive of website material from local and national news that is searchable on the Special Collections website 
  • A survey of Twitter from right before the attack until the days after

Padilla was familiar with Documenting the Now, a project to chronicle major events through social media that started in the wake of the Ferguson, Missouri protests. He turned to an open-source utility called Twarc to scrape some 11 million tweets that contained “Las Vegas” starting on Sept. 30 and continuing a few days after the shooting. 

With that much raw data to work with, finding ways to get one’s arms around it is challenging, and it’s a task Padilla will be tackling with the aid of a graduate assistant in the coming months.

To start to make sense of it, he turned to the some 800,000 emojis in the data set, creating a visualization that takes nearly 30 minutes to play out.

“One of the things I found in working with a collection of this kind is it’s difficult in an emotional sense,” Padilla said. “You’re interacting with millions of expressions of tragedy and sorrow, and it can weigh on you. There’s just a large sequence of crying emojis and hands praying. It’s just one type of way to lose yourself in the emotion that’s expressed in the collection.”

Perhaps a bigger challenge than the actual data analysis is figuring out how to properly share the data set with the public. Twitter’s terms and conditions have restrictions on how its data can be used and who can use it. Some universities working on similar projects have shared the data only with their research communities but not with the public at large. Others have shared a list of individual numeric identifiers to individual tweets, but not the tweets themselves. 

Padilla, who sits on a Society of American Archivists’ task force on the topic, grapples both with the ethical concerns of how that data can affect survivors and community members and with trying to anticipate how future historians might try to comb through ephemeral records like websites and social media.

“We have to be very clear about why we captured this collection,” he said. “What constraints we faced, what parameters we used, what might be missing in the collection. Just so there is as clear a record as possible about why this collection was created, how representative it is, whether or not there are other things that could be used to fill in the picture. I think that those questions scale from the present into the future.”

Standing in the Aftermath

Like Padilla and the rest of Special Collections, Amanda Fortini contended with the urgency of the moment. A visiting lecturer in journalism, Fortini was home in Montana for the weekend. By 6 on the morning of Oct. 2, her editor at The New Yorker was calling. By noon she was on a plane back to Las Vegas. 

Working the phone before she stepped off her flight, Fortini had lined up a number of potential sources who were at the festival, but not all of the interviews had come through, and the clock was ticking. The story was supposed to be an essay about the state of the city. Fortini worked through Monday night to get it done. 

By Tuesday, her editors in New York wanted to go in a different direction.  She worked a second straight night to get the harrowing story — full of agonizing details from those who were in the midst of the chaos — written and posted by noon on Wednesday.

“There was a moment before I wrote the second one where I thought ‘I can’t do this. I’m too exhausted,’” she said. “And then I was like, ‘You just do it.’”

It was the first of three stories on the shooting she’d write for The New Yorker, followed by an in-depth look at how survivors were coping for The California Sunday Magazine.

The freshness of the trauma left Fortini, who is returning as a lecturer and a fellow at UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute, reluctant to teach her New Yorker stories in her magazine writing class. Many of her students read them regardless, and they had plenty of questions.

“They wanted to know how it came together,” she said. “‘How did you locate the sources? How did you get people to tell you their stories in such detail? How did you do it so quickly?’ That kind of stuff. They’re interested in that evolution from idea to final piece.”

Ben Edwards, the law professor who runs the Investor Protection Clinic at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law, didn’t work directly with survivors, but his work was just as urgent. The Las Vegas Victims Fund collected more than $30 million to disburse to victims, and Edwards knew those people were at risk of opportunistic financial professionals — or worse.

“In many instances, people who portray themselves as financial advisers are actually commission-compensated salespeople,” Edwards said. “Whenever someone has a sudden influx of cash, they’re often targeted by these people and taken advantage of.”

Edwards helped organize the Las Vegas Survivors Project, where victims could seek out no-cost financial advice from professionals affiliated with the Institute for the Fiduciary Standard, Garrett Planning Network, the Chartered Financial Analysts Institute, and the North American Personal Financial Adviser Association.

The financial advisers are decentralized, with four in Nevada, six to eight in California, and others scattered around the country.

The project is an outgrowth of the work being done in the law school’s clinics, and it allows Edwards to draw attention to broader issues of financial impropriety and the need for tighter regulation in the sector.

“While this is a particular event we can rally people around for help, there are many folks who are routinely taken advantage of who are no less needy. We don’t have the resources or the political will to impose higher standards on all people giving financial advice,” Edwards said. But the clinic is a start.

Healing Through Culture

The UNLV and Las Vegas communities bore their own burdens after the shooting. As Benning’s study took the pulse of community members who were devastated by the event, history professors Miriam Melton-Villanueva and Deirdre Clemente turned their attention to helping people heal and what they could learn from this example.

Melton-Villanueva, who teaches Mexican history and culture, had the idea of setting up an ofrenda, a ritual altar normally used during Dia de los Muertos to honor the dead. It was among a number of initiatives taken in the past year with an eye on healing, from memorial services to special talks to explore the issues the shooting prompted to the mobilization of faculty, staff, and advanced students in UNLV’s medical, counseling, and mental health programs. 

The Barrick Museum hosted the ofrenda starting Oct. 17, beginning with students from Melton-Villanueva’s class placing objects on the altar from the American flag to UNLV hats to candles, boots, bread, and notes. Through word of mouth, other students started to trickle in and add their own offerings, not just to victims of Oct. 1, but to their own dead. 

“There were lots of people who were participating in this in the way of celebrating life,” Clemente said. “A lot of people really found that to be a meaningful way of looking at these deaths, that it wasn’t this senseless violence. What we were doing was a more positive way of looking at something that was so ugly and horrific.”

The ofrenda stayed up through Nov. 2 — Dia de los Muertos is Nov. 1 — but it gained the attention of the broader academic community at a conference for public historians hosted at UNLV. 

They were curious how UNLV would deal with a tragedy that happened in its backyard. Would it confront the issue head on? Would it examine gun violence directly? How would the university address victims, survivors, and the community? What would be the message and the tone?

From various angles, researchers across campus are examining different threads of those questions. Erika Gisela Abad, a professor of interdisciplinary, gender, and ethnic studies, is delving into the effects that an interactive art installation has had. She will present the University Forum lecture Who Are We and How Do We Heal? Oct. 2. 

Through a service-learning course, UNLV faculty and students are documenting the activities that led to downtown’s Las Vegas Community Healing Garden, now run by Get Outdoors Nevada. A research project under the supervision of criminal justice professors Joel Lieberman and Terance Miethe had been surveying community opinions of police surveillance for more than a year before the shooting happened. Now the researchers, led by doctoral student Milia Heen, can contrast perceptions toward drones and body-worn cameras before and after the shooting. 

For their part, Melton-Villanueva and Clemente are now preparing a journal article on the experience with the ofrenda along with graduate student Doris Morgan Rueda. It examines the way cities mourn — especially one like Las Vegas, with its reputation as America’s vacation playground and where victims were mostly from outside the community.

“I hope that the lesson is that in such dark and unexplainable things we can find our way back to normal or our way back to acceptance of the current situation through other cultures,” Clemente said. “This is something we all lived in, and it’s something we’re always going to live with. Implementing how we think about life and death is important.”

Even the silver linings of a tragedy like this are hard to swallow. The impact of UNLV’s research done in the wake of Oct. 1 will take years to see as studies are published and followed up on, and the lessons in them are applied in other communities facing tragedy. 

But if there’s any reason for optimism, it comes from Benning’s work with survivors so soon after they started to grapple with the enormity of what happened to them, and as they placed the event in context over the course of this past year. 

“I hope what would come out of this is a sense just because a bad, awful, terrible thing happens to you, does not mean that you are fundamentally broken,” Benning said. “It does not mean you are shattered. Some people may actually feel better and feel like, ‘Now I have a new purpose.’”