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A Dramatistic Analysis of the Sandy Hook Shootings Case Study

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Updated: Sep 5th, 2019

Identification of the Problem


On the morning of December 14, 2012, a mentally disturbed youth named Adam Lanza gained access to Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 26 individuals using a Bushmaster rifle, before taking his own life with a single shot from a Glock handgun (Barron, 2012; Chaney & Robertson, 2013; Semeiks, 2013).

Although the unprecedented shootings took 11 minutes to complete, they attracted widespread condemnation as various media outlets published as much information as possible, some even without following the protocols for accurate reporting.

For example, some reputable media outlets such as CBS and Fox News wrongly reported that the killer’s mother worked at the school’s kindergarten and that she was killed as she taught the children (Folkenflik, 2012).

However, school administrators later clarified that Lanza’s mother was not an employee of the school and had been killed at her home. The proposed project uses Kenneth Burke’s theory of dramastitic pentad to undertake an analysis of the Sandy Hook shootings with the view to illuminating the local and national media coverage of the massacre.


The proposed project is embedded in the justification that whatever is published by mainstream media outlets heavily influences how Americans perceive events, policies, individuals and groups, and that there is an urgent need to analyze how these media outlets primarily exhibited the diverse groups of individuals in the tragedy as well as the various policies that allowed the shooter to have access to guns.

Lastly, it is felt that understanding how an individual with a mental condition was allowed to purchase guns is critical to understanding how blame shifted from particular social systems to the shooter as a single entity.

Value of Project

The proposed project has immense contribution to the existing literature, particularly in distilling the knowledge on media reporting of shooting incidents, American gun rights, and employment of mental illness to explain national tragedies.

Burke provides useful insights in his dramastitic pentad criticism model, where he focuses on “a flawed individual and an imperfect society as rhetoric dominated by scene-agent ratio” (Zafis, 2013, p. 5).

Drawing from this elaboration, the Sandy Hook massacre can be explained within the realms of gun control supporters assuming that the American society (scene) permits individuals (agents) to arm themselves with dangerous weapons, hence making shooting incidents to be perceived within the context of imperfect systems or a deficient gun rights scene (Rosenberg, 2014).

Conversely, gun rights advocates employ the mental illness frame to insinuate that an imperfect society allows mentally flawed agents to slip through a damaged mental health system and have access to guns, leading to incidences such as Sandy Hook (Chaney & Robertson, 2013).

Statement of Problem

Available scholarship demonstrates that “recent mass shootings by persons seemingly afflicted with serious mental illness (SMI) have received extensive news media coverage and prompted national dialogue about the causes of, and policy responses to, mass shootings” (McGinty, Webster, Jarlenski, & Barry, 2014, p. 406).

But while such news media framing of serious mental illness as a cause of Sandy Hook shootings may influence public attitudes about individuals with mental illness and support for gun violence prevention proposals, questions proliferate about the role of the media in dealing with gun rights, flawed agents, and the various policies that seem to place weapons at the hands of the mentally ill (Rosenberg, 2014).

The proposed project aims to fill these gaps in the literature.

Purpose of Project and Key Research Questions

The purpose of the proposed project is to use Burke’s theory of dramastitic pentad to explore the rhetoric surrounding Sandy Hook’s shootings as reported in the media. The proposed research questions are as follows:

RQ1: With reference to Sandy Hook shootings, how does the media reports the shift in focus from a gun rights scene to a flawed agent?

RQ2: Does the media use mental illness as a scapegoat for why national tragedies occur?

These research questions will be addressed by analyzing primary literature on mental health issues and gun crimes in America as well as secondary literature (newspapers) on Sandy Hook’s incidence and how it was reported.


Research Design

The proposed project will use the dramastitic pentad form of criticism as the method of exploration.

Originating from philosopher, critical theorist and rhetorician Kenneth Burke (1897-1993), the pentad operates “grammatically as a means of articulating the relationships among ideas [and] how words about motives fit together to explain human action” (Blakeslay, 2001, p. 8).

Burke developed the five key terms to dramatism (act, scene, agent, agency, purpose) and argued that these terms not only generate the principle of our investigation, but also determine what person or kind of person (agent) performs the act and what means or instruments are used (agency) to perform the act.

Additionally, Burke, comprehensively cited in Blakeslay (2001), argues that “any complete statement about motives will offer some kind of answers to these five questions: what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose)” (p. 24).

In the context of the proposed project, the media may incessantly disagree about the purposes behind the frequent shootings in the United States, why individuals choose to perpetuate shootings in a particular place (scene), as well as the character of individuals who perpetuate the shootings (agents).

Owing to the fact that the pentad is perceived as a strategic technique for analyzing discourse by focusing on how it attributes motivation to human action, it is evidently clear that both simple and complex statements about why individuals engage in certain things are potential material for dramatistic analysis (Blakeslay, 2001).

As such, the pentad can be used as a form of rhetorical analysis or as a method that can be employed by readers to identify the rhetorical nature of any text that explains or represents human motivation, implying that the method can be used to dramastitically analyze how media outlets in the United States reported the Sandy Hook’s shootings as well as the repercussions of their reporting on different groups of individuals and social systems.

In undertaking a dramastitic analysis of the Sandy Hook shootings, the proposed project will use Burke’s pentadic concepts of agent (names what person or kind of person who performed the act) as well as scene (the background of the act or the situation in which it occurred).

As demonstrated by Demikiw (2010), Burke’s model not only allows a critic to achieve multiple perspectives or perceptions on the same scenario by attributing diverse terms of the pentad to the same components of the situation under investigation, but also provides users with a means for understanding motives, attitudes and perspectives by undertaking an analysis of language use.

Understandably, therefore, Burke’s theory of dramastitic pentad can be applied in efforts aimed at not only analyzing how the media reports shift in focus from a gun rights scene to a flawed agent in the Sandy Hook shootings, but also understanding why the media employs mental illness to explain the occurrence of national tragedies in America.


The proposed project will employ online newspapers and articles as the basis for data collection, in large part due to the fact that the researcher is interested in dramatistically analyzing how local and national media outlets covered the Sandy Hook shootings.

It is the information contained in the online newspapers and articles that will be analyzed using Burke’s theory of dramatistic pentad to provide responses to the stated research questions.

Primary resources such as peer-reviewed research articles will also be used to provide an evidence base on mental health and gun crimes in America, American gun laws, as well as media reporting of violent crimes in America.

Some of the advantages of using secondary sources (online newspapers) include ease of use, low cost of acquisition, capacity to clarify research question(s), as well as capability to provide responses to the stated research questions.

Conversely, some of the advantages of using primary sources (e.g., peer-reviewed articles) include capacity to develop critical thinking skills as well as propensity to construct knowledge (Scheuler, 2014).

Secondary sources (newspapers) need to be carefully selected, as available literature demonstrates that “not all information obtained from secondary sources is equally reliable or valid” (Stewart & Kamins, 1993, p. 17).

This predisposition is also applicable in the collection of primary sources (peer-reviewed articles), thus the need to exercise caution.

Drawing from this elaboration, the following procedure will be used for gathering materials: “(1) what was the purpose of the study? (2) Who collected the information? (3) What information was actually collected? (4) When was the information collected? (5) How was the information obtained? (6)

How consistent is the information with other sources?” (Stewart & Kamins, 1993, p. 17).

In sampling, the researcher is of the opinion that representativeness of the artifact set (online newspapers and articles) will be balanced with considerations for the attainment of homogeneity for the sampled artifacts not only to facilitate replication of results, but also to enhance credibility as well as validity.

Discussion and Conclusion

Anticipated Findings

The first research question relates to how the media reports the shift in focus from a gun rights scene to a flawed agent within the context of Sandy Hook shootings.

Available scholarship is consistent that mass shootings can enhance mental health stigma, entrench stereotypes that individuals with mental conditions are violent, and influence public policy (Rosenberg, 2014), that gun violence perpetuated by mentally unstable individuals has been and continues to be a serious public health concern in American schools and communities (Ruggles & Rajan, 2014), and that many gun violence prevention groups have underscored the relationship between mental illness and aggression and called for policies to prevent individuals with mental illness from having guns (McGinty et al., 2014).

Using the agent (Adam Lanza) and scene (American society) continuum of Burke’s theory of dramastitic pentad, it is anticipated that the ratios between the two elements will lean more toward the exploration of the flawed agent in newspapers and other media outlets.

The application of these ratios to any rhetorical scenario permits the rhetorician (in this case, the researcher) to constrict an analysis from a bigger picture to a more defined one (Blakeslay, 2001; Demikiw, 2010), implying that the researcher will have the capacity to come up with responses as to how the American media has shifted attention to the flawed agent and failed to account or advocate for the gun rights scene even after repeated gun-related massacres.

The second research question relates to why the American media uses mental illness as a scapegoat for the routine occurrence of national tragedies.

Again, research is consistent that the rhetoric about the relationship between poor mental health and controlling access to firearms in the American society appears to be most predominant in the wake of mass shootings (Ruggles & Rajan, 2014), that mass shootings often lead to widespread public anger, renewed debate on gun control as well as implementation of several mental health policies at the state and federal level (Rosenberg, 2014), and that many gun policy proposals across the United States are based on the common conjecture that mental illness is an important cause of violence (Chaney & Robertson, 2013; McGinty et al., 2014).

Using Burke’s theory of dramastitic pentad as the basis for analysis and following the stream of research indicated above, the anticipated findings are likely to reinforce the assertion that the American media indeed uses flawed agents (individuals with mental illness) to form the basis for justifying the constant occurrence of national tragedies such as the one that happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Such a finding will be instrumental in assisting the researcher to look for gaps in the various gun laws and policies which undoubtedly allow flawed agents to gain access to automatic weapons.

Additionally, the analysis and findings will assist the researcher to delineate the reasons as to why American media is increasingly shifting blame from the failure of specific social systems to the debilitating mental effects of the shooter as a single entity.


The expected results are likely to be limited by (1) complexity of analysis using Burke’s theory of dramatistic pentad as the two components (agent and scene) may overlap or be applied to another part, (2) difficulties in generalizing findings due to lack of scientific rigor, (3) potential for the researcher to fail to exercise objectivity in examining various discourses with the view to understanding how they function to influence an audience, and (4) difficulties in establishing the correct ratios within the context of the relationships formed between the components of the pentad (Blakeslay, 2009; Smith, 2009).

Overall, the anticipated conclusions of the proposed project will not be lacking as the researcher will take all the necessary steps to ensure reliability and validity of findings. Such steps include (1) familiarization with the Burke’s theory of dramastitic pentad, (2) reference to other research studies that use similar methodology and approach, (3) ensuring representativeness of the artifact set, and (4) ensuring adequate knowledge of, and familiarity with, Burke’s dramatistic tools and cluster analysis techniques.

It is the conviction of the researcher that the conclusions of the proposed project will provide important insights on how local and national newspapers and media outlets cover shooting incidents and if such coverage is to blame for reinforcing the flawed agent perspective at the expense of restructuring gun laws to ensure that individuals with mental illness do not have access to weapons.

Using the contextual framework of the Sandy Hook shootings, it is also the conviction of the researcher that the conclusions of this project will provide important insights on whether the American media use the mental illness concept to hide the realities on why national tragedies keep on occurring.

The findings of this study will go a long way in informing policy directions on mental health issues, American gun laws, mass school shootings, as well as media reporting of violent crimes in the United States.


Barron, J. (2012). . New York Times. Web.

Blakeslay, D. (2001). The elements of dramatism. Harlow: Longman.

Chaney, C., & Robertson, R. V. (2013). Media reporting of the Sandy Hook elementary school angels. Journal of Pan African Studies, 5(6), 74-114.

Demikiw, J. J. (2010). (Master’s thesis, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon). Web.

Folkenflik, D. (2012). . Web.

McGinty, E. E., Webster, D. W., Jarlenski, M., & Barry, C. L. (2014). News media framing of serious mental illness and gun violence in the United States, 1997-2012. American Journal of Public Health, 104(3), 406-413.

Rosenberg, J. (2014). Mass shootings and mental health policy. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 41(1), 107-121.

Ruggles, K. V., & Rajan, S. (2014). Gun possession among American youth: A Discovery-based approach to understand gun violence. PLoS ONE, 9(11), 1-12.

Scheuler, S. (2014). Primary and secondary sources in history: A primer for undergraduates, challenges for librarians. Reference Librarian, 55(2), 163-167.

Semeiks, J. G. (2013). We the paper confront Sandy Hook. Confrontation, 113, 11-17.

Smith, C. R. (2009). Rhetoric and human consciousness: A history (3rd ed.). Long Grove, I. L.: Waveland Press.

Stewart, D. W., & Kamins, M. A. (1993). Evaluating secondary sources. In D. W. Stewart & M. A. Kamins (Eds.), Secondary research (pp. 17-33). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Ltd.

Zafis, N. S. (2013). . Web.

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