Backlash has been 'horrible' says science journalist who reported Tim Hunt sexist conference comments

The journalism academic who reported on Professor Tim Hunt's sexist comments at a science conference has condemned his subsequent "shaming" on Twitter.

But despite coming under attack herself, City University's Connie St Louis said she stands by her reporting and has no regrets.

On 9 June Hunt gave a speech at the 2015 World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul which included comments about women in science, which some members of the audience considered insensitive for the occasion.

St Louis was amongst those present who decided to report what he said on Twitter:

Explaining why she decided to send the tweet, she said that American colleagues also found his comments sexist. She said: "I thought, how could one of our leading scientists stand up and say this? And because I was the British one, I said I'd tweet it out."

Following huge publicity and online criticism, Hunt resigned from honorary positions at the UCL, the Royal Society and the European Research Council.

St Louis has also come under attack herself on Twitter and been the target of critical articles in titles including the Daily Mail, The Times and Spectator questioning her credentials and the veracity of her account.

On 24 June The Times published details of a new "leaked transcript" of Hunt's comments which was apparently based on an account produced by an un-named European Commission official.

This provided new details claiming Hunt prefaced his comments by saying: "It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists." And it claimed that he concluded by saying: "Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea…"

St Louis said the Twitter attacks on her have been "horrible" and that she has had to twice report messages to Twitter and the police.

She said: "What people are forgetting is that he went on to the radio and affirmed what he said. He stated: 'What I said was quite accurately reported'."

Before the Times article was published, St Louis said she was contacted by a Times reporter who "referred to a leaked, un-sourced document that he had got their hands on, which showed Tim Hunt adding a section beginning 'now seriously' to his remarks".

St Louis said that neither her, nor her colleagues, can recall the "now seriously" comment. She said: "If he had said 'now seriously', I would have remembered that".

She added: "I don't know if it's good journalism to refer to a leaked report, and an unnamed official." And she questioned why The Times used the word "transcript" when "there's no recording – by using that word it implies there's a recording".

Asked if she regrets the consequences of her tweet, she said: "A journalist [from the Daily Mail] asked me if I regretted forcing Tim Hunt to resign. And my reaction was that I didn't do that. I didn't do anything apart from write a story."*

She adds: "There's nothing wrong with Tim Hunt: He's a sharp 72-year-old. Why else would the Crick institute hire him? UCL? The Royal Society? My intention was not to harm him.

"My intention was to produce a piece to reflect how hard it's been to talk about sexism in science."

She points out that her tweets were soon followed by complaints and messages to the Royal Society about the lack of female representation in science: "People like to jump on the bandwagon, but not to sort out what's going on."

The location of the conference made, she claims, the comments more contentious: "It was being hosted by women; leading scientists and engineers from Korea. It's really hard for them, there."

She adds that her own experience prompted her actions too: "I have been a female scientist and I have been a science journalist", citing her original degree in Applied Biology, further involvement in scientific research and her work for the BBC.

"People say I am an academic, but I am still a freelance journalist. I believe a good teacher still practices the trade. I have experienced these things in my role as a science journalist", she says, referring to casual sexism.

On the subject of trial by social media, she says: "I don't like Twitter shaming. Not for anybody. And that's why I'm so horrified." But she said: "I stand by my journalism, because it was absolutely good journalism…one of the problems with science is that there's hardly any journalism about it, people keep regurgitating papers, we treat scientists as if they are gods/goddesses."

The Daily Mail ran a story questioning details about St Louis carried in an "online CV" and on her City University biog.

EDITOR'S UPDATE:

*An earlier version of this story contained the following quote from Connie St Louis: "I answered this question already when the Daily Mail crashed into one of my lectures. They weren't invited and the photographer just walks in and takes a picture while I'm giving a lecture."

Press Gazette took this line out after questions were raised about whether this was a fair reflection of events.

Press Gazette understands that the Daily Mail reporter concerned attended the Association of British Science Writers Summer School at the Royal Society on 25 June as a paying delegate. They said they asked St Louis a question at the end of her lecture and that she also consented to an interview and photograph after she had finished speaking.

SECOND EDITOR'S UPDATE

Connie St Louis has contacted Press Gazette to say that she stands by her description of the Daily Mail having "crashed into" one of her lectures. She said the Mail journalists were only at the day-long ABSW Summer School event to ask her about the Tim Hunt affair (they did not stay for the other sessions) and reiterated that the photographer took pictures of her inside the Royal Society without her permission – before she agreed to have her photograph taken outside.

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