Butterfield served as Times bureau chief in Saigon, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, and Boston and as a correspondent in Washington and New York. During that time, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize as a member of The New York Times team that published the Pentagon Papers, the Pentagon's secret history of the Vietnam War, in 1971.
Butterfield won a 1983 National Book Award for Nonfiction for China: Alive in the Bitter Sea.[a] He also wrote All God's Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence (1995) about the child criminal Willie Bosket.
Butterfield is the eponym for "The Butterfield Effect", used to refer to a person who "makes a statement that is ludicrous on its face, yet it reveals what the speaker truly believes," especially if expressing a supposed paradox when a causal relationship should be obvious. The particular article that sparked this was titled "More Inmates, Despite Drop In Crime" by Butterfield in the New York Times on Nov. 8, 2004.
Butterfield is the son of Lyman Henry Butterfield, a historian and a director of the Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, Va. The Canadian industrialist Cyrus S. Eaton was one of Fox Butterfield's grandfathers.
Butterfield received a bachelor's degree summa cum laude, master's degree, and doctorate of philosophy in Chinese history from Harvard University.
In 1988, Butterfield married Elizabeth Mehren, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He has two children, Ethan and Sarah, from a previous marriage and a son, Sam, with Mehren. Michael Moriarty played Fox Butterfield in the 1993 television movie Born Too Soon, based on Mehren's book about their daughter Emily, who was born prematurely in the late 1980s. Mehren was played by Pamela Reed. The couple live in Hingham, Massachusetts, about which Butterfield has sometimes written in The Times.
Butterfield was noted for writing a sequence of articles  discussing the "paradox" of crime rates falling while the prison population grew due to tougher sentencing guidelines, without ever considering the possibility that the tougher sentencing guidelines may have reduced crime by causing criminals to be imprisoned. "The Butterfield Effect" is often brought up by James Taranto in his column for the online editorial page of the Wall Street Journal called Best of the Web Today, typically bringing up a headline which displays the effect with the joke "Fox Butterfield, Is That You?".
- China: Alive in the Bitter Sea (1982)
- All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence (1995)
- The Prentice-Hall Reader, Chapter 7 (6th Edition). Retrieved 2007-04-23.
- The 1999 Bureau of Justice Assistance National Partnership Meeting: Working Together for Peace and Justice in the 21st Century.
- "National Book Awards – 1983". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-11.
- "NewsHour Online: David Gergen interviews author Fox Butterfield". Retrieved 2007-04-23.
- "First Black Elected to Head Harvard's Law Review". Fox Butterfield. The New York Times, February 6, 1990.
- "Elizabeth Mehren and Fox Butterfield, Newspaper Reporters, Marry in Utah." The New York Times, January 31, 1988.
- "Interview with Elizabeth Mehren, author of Born Too Soon". Retrieved 2007-04-23.
- "Punitive Damages; Crime Keeps On Falling, but Prisons Keep On Filling"; "Study Finds 2.6% Increase in U.S. Prison Population";"Despite Drop in Crime, an Increase in Inmates"
- TimesWatch: Criminal Negligence of Cause and Effect
- Booknotes interview with Butterfield on All God's Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence, March 31, 1996.