Aim. This paper reports a study of how issues around the use of smacking by parents are represented in the print media. Our purpose was not to state a case for or against the use of smacking. Rather, within the contemporary social context we sought to answer the question, ‘Why is smacking considered to be a legitimate part of parenting in the United Kingdom?’
Background. Although a number of government proposals aiming to ban the use of smacking by parents have been presented in the United Kingdom parliament and Scottish Executive, current legislation allows parents to use this form of physical discipline as long as it does not result in physical injury to the child. For the purposes of this discussion, smacking is considered as a social phenomenon rather than an activity simply to be favoured or to be opposed.
Method. A sample of 244 articles from five different United Kingdom newspapers was examined during 2004. Schema analysis that drew upon semiotics was used to analyse these print media representations about the use of legitimate violence by parents towards children.
Findings. Newspaper reportage about the parental use of physical discipline has increased over the past 20 years. Only one newspaper (The Independent) published on this topic prior to 1994. The discourse about the use of physical discipline by parents has changed over time from one that focuses on the effectiveness of smacking to one that about the human rights of the child. The main themes identified in the print media discourse were the rights of the child, the effectiveness of smacking, long-term effects and consequences, and the role of the state.
Conclusion. Media texts can influence and reinforce social dimensions of the label. The beliefs and attitudes of healthcare professionals and parents about smacking may be influenced by such representations.