Q&A: Sherry Towers on the contagion effect of mass shootings

October 5, 2015

When the media are calling Sherry Towers, it's often on a sad day.

Towers, a physicist at Arizona State University, has become a regular source for journalists since her paper on how the media coverage of mass shootings can inspire future mass shootings was published earlier this year. After last week's tragic shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, that left 10 people dead, Towers' phone was ringing once again. portrait of Arizona State University physicist Sherry Towers Arizona State University physicist Sherry Towers studies the statistics around mass shootings and how many are inspired by previous shootings. Download Full Image

The statistician, modeler and research professor spoke to about the recent tragedy and her study on the contagious nature of mass shootings.

Question: Does this recent incident seem to fall within the findings of your research?

Answer: Our research examined whether or not there was evidence that mass killings appear to inspire copycat killings. We found evidence that killings that receive national or international media attention do indeed inspire similar events a significant fraction of the time. In the case of this particular tragedy in Oregon, there have been reports that the killer apparently had a blog where he praised Vester Flanagan, the killer who shot two news reporters and a bystander on camera in August. If the reports are true, then indeed this recent killing may be an example of the contagion we have seen evident in so many other killings.

Q: So is conventional wisdom correct that some mass shootings are copycats?

A: Yes, we believe so. In fact, during the trial of the Aurora theater shooter, the father of one of the victims asked the media not to cover the trial, because he feared that the coverage would inspire copycat killings. Unfortunately, his prediction came true. A gunman opened fire in a Louisiana movie theater, and in a Tennessee movie theater a man attacked people with a hatchet. All within two weeks.
Q: How does just looking at numbers prove that?

A: The hallmark of contagion is seeing events unusually bunched together in time. The details of our analysis, where we fit a mathematical model of contagion to the data to quantify the level of contagion, are quite technical. But really, what it essentially amounts to is seeing if there are unusual groupings of events. In mass killings (four or more people killed), where the tragedies usually get national or international media attention, we saw significant evidence of this kind of unusual bunching. In mass shootings — with less than four people killed, but at least three people shot — we didn't see any evidence of unusual bunching. Interestingly, those events are so common in the U.S., happening once every few days, that they don't even make it past the local news. Because we saw evidence of contagion in high-profile events, and no evidence of contagion in events that mostly just got local news, we hypothesize that media attention may be the driver of the patterns we see. This kind of contagion has been suspected for a long time; our study is the first to quantify it.

Q: How does this compare to the probability of, say, a disease spreading, since we’re talking about a contagion phenomenon?

A: With a disease, you usually need close contact to spread it to someone else. In this case, the news media act as a "vector" that can transmit the infection across a very large area. The people who are susceptible to ideation to commit these terrible acts are quite rare in the population ... that's why it appears that it takes a lot of media coverage over a wide geographic area for this kind of contagion to take place.
Q: What is the news media’s role in this? Do they push up the numbers?

A: It appears that yes, national media coverage does end up increasing the frequency of these tragedies. However, the U.S. Constitution ensures freedom of the press ... we cannot legislate restrictions on the press to avoid this. It has to be a voluntary move. In fact, most press agencies will not report on suicides for exactly this reason ... suicides have been shown to be contagious. The sheriff in Oregon made the decision not to mention the killer's name. Perhaps his choice will be the beginning of a larger national conversation on how we can choose (or choose not) to cover these events.

Q: What is the next step in this research? What can you answer by taking it further?

A: It needs to be pointed out that we did this research without funding, because there has been a Congressional moratorium since the 1990s on funding for research into firearm violence. We had to do this study unpaid, in our spare time. This lack of funding is a huge barrier to better understanding of the dynamics that underlie these tragic events. No other developed country in the world expects its scientists to work for free, spending their evenings and weekends studying public-health problems as pressing as the out-of-control firearm violence in the U.S. Because of this moratorium on funding, there aren't even official statistics on these events. Given the amount of media attention that is paid to these tragedies, it always surprises me that the complete lack of federal funding for research into the problem is rarely mentioned. So yes, I and many other researchers would like to devote more of our time to studying this problem, but there are only so many hours available of our time that we can afford to work for free.

Logan Clark

Media Relations Officer, Department of Media Relations and Strategic Communications

Powerful new opera 'Guadalupe' blends cultural perspectives

October 6, 2015

The School of Music strives to perform new works on a regular basis as part of its Lyric Opera Theatre season lineup, but it doesn’t often have the chance to present a brand-new show also written by a member of its own faculty.

This November, however, the school is fortunate to showcase the world premiere of “Guadalupe,” a multilingual opera in two acts composed by ASU’s own professor of composition and music theory, James DeMars. Photo by Sean Hoyer Download Full Image

"On behalf of the Lyric Opera Theatre, it is with great anticipation and excitement that we present this performance of ‘Guadalupe,’” says Brian DeMaris, director of the Lyric Opera Theatre. “We are preparing our students for careers in which most of their engagements will be with new works, and it is and will continue to be an integral part of our training. Providing students with opportunities to engage with living authors is an essential part of what we do.”

“Guadalupe” centers on the story of how the Virgin Mary appeared to peasant Juan Diego (Cuauhtlatohuac), near the Aztec Temple of Mother Earth (Tonantzin) near Mexico City between Dec. 9 and 12, 1531. According to Diego’s testimony, Mary was robed in a striking blue color, with rays of light radiating around her. This image of Mary, known as the Virgen de Guadalupe, is central to the traditions of the Mexican Catholic religion and is easily recognizable in art works as an important symbol of that faith. December 12 has since become a popular Catholic holiday to remember this story and celebrate Mexico’s patron saint, who promoted a message of hope and peace.

Other central themes of the opera include the first peace treaty of the Americas, and the revelation of the miraculous, blended portrait of the Aztec and Spanish Mother Mary that inspired peace throughout the Americas.

In May 2008, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Mesa, two debut concerts of the “Guadalupe” musical score were performed as an opera-oratorio – without the costumes and sets that define a traditional opera. The performance was recorded and released by Canyon Records as a co-production with the School of Music. Reviews were glowing: “As the last notes faded I sat awestruck ... this opera was a milestone in the history of contemporary music,” wrote Ruben Hernandez for Latino Perspectives Magazine.

Known for works that explore intercultural collaborations, DeMars says, “Composing this opera provided me a remarkable opportunity to bring together the two sides of my career: the classical works, which include cantatas, concerti and a requiem, and the intercultural works, which feature Native American, Hispanic and African artists performing with traditional classical ensembles.” In 2010, he was honored with the Arizona Governor’s Arts Award for his efforts on this opera.

The November premiere of “Guadalupe” – the first time it will be performed as a full-length opera – also aligns itself with ASU’s mission of commitment to community engagement and connection to place, since it reflects stories and history that are integral to the identity of the borderlands of Arizona and Mexico. This world premiere will be the sixth co-production by the ASU School of Music and Canyon Records, which has been specializing in Native American music since 1951.

Following the final performance on Sunday, Nov. 22, at the Evelyn Smith Music Theater on ASU's Tempe campus, audience members will have the opportunity to participate in a talk-back session with the creators and cast members.

“Composing this opera provided me with a chance to bring together musicians from many cultures for this series of performances, including Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai (Navajo-Ute), and Mexican percussionist/flutist Xavier Quijas Yxayotl (Huichol), as well as the African percussion resources of my long-time colleague Mark Sunkett,” DeMars says.

The opera’s plot revolves around Juan Diego’s efforts to have his vision accepted as a miracle by the Roman Catholic Church, but the deeper, underlying theme is the ever-relevant concept of reconciliation between warring cultures and achieving peace through non-violence.

In voices that blend English, Spanish and Aztec languages, the opera’s powerful notes and dramatic storyline don’t just weave together a fictional story, they address timeless issues that apply to today’s inter-cultural challenges, much as how they did when Juan Diego first saw the visions in 1531.

“The finale of the opera is my favorite part,” DeMars says. “Performers sing about coping with U.S.-Mexico immigration issues and the cultural differences that separate the two nations."

The themes of reconciliation and acceptance recur throughout the opera’s centuries-old storyline, yet audiences will come away feeling equally as awe-inspired and hopeful about the modern-day issues of our borderlands. “I open the opera with a euphoric epiphany, revealing the experience of hope, and close with a final prayer for peace,” says DeMars.

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19-21 and 2 p.m. Nov. 22 at the Evelyn Smith Music Theater on ASU's Tempe campus

Music composed by James DeMars
Libretto by James DeMars, Robert Esteva Doyle and Graham Whitehead
Sung in English and Spanish with English supertitles
Stage Director: Graham Whitehead
Music Director: William Reber
Choreographer: Lauren Margison
Production Designs: Alfredo Escarcega
Costumes, hair and makeup: Sharon Jones
Lighting Design: Jeff Jann

This opera contains mature themes and may not be appropriate for young children.

Ticket prices: $21 for adults; $15 for faculty, staff and alumni; $12 for senior citizens; $10 for group purchases (minimum of 10 tickets); $8 for students.

A $2 handling fee applies to all orders, and a web per ticket purchase fee will apply.

To order tickets, call the Herberger Institute Box Office at 480.965.6447 or visit music.asu.edu/events. Box office hours are 11:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2-4 p.m. Saturdays

Heather Beaman School of Music Communications Liaison 480.727.6222 Heather.M.Beaman@asu.edu

Deborah Sussman Susser

Communications and media specialist, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts