Journalism and activist democratic theory and ethics: When the ‘chilling effects’ of libel can lose effect

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4 Citations (Scopus)


We use the events of the civil rights movement of the 1960s as context in exploring deployment of ethical principles associated with activist democratic theory by New York Times editors. The ethical framework helped shape coverage of perceived injustices against minorities and set the tenor of confrontation with public officials. Subscription to activist journalism ethics assumes a lack of fairness in liberal democratic processes that take place within unequal social, economic, and political environments. These media tend to challenge the status quo more vigorously than do other media. A content analysis shows that the Times pursued the civil rights story with an activist zeal that got it entangled in the historic Sullivan libel lawsuit of 1960. The paper did not scale back its tone in challenging the social order in the South – even in the face of physical intimidation of reporters and in spite of the widely assumed ‘chilling effects’ of libel. This suggests that when media cover certain issues in an activist spirit, conventional restraints engendered by fear of libel may lose effect.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1212-1228
Number of pages17
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - Sept 1 2020


  • Activist democratic theory and ethics
  • New York Times v. Sullivan decision
  • chilling effects of libel
  • civil rights story
  • content analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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