December 1, 2012

Blog errs: City inspector still on the beat

By David Hench
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Portland city officials were in the unusual position of disclosing an employee's medical status Friday after a neighborhood blog suggested the city's restaurant inspector was being pulled off inspections for being too aggressive.

Portland officials said health inspector Michele Sturgeon is going on a medical leave that is unrelated to her high-profile work inspecting and shutting down several city restaurants for code violations.

However, some restaurants may see it as a temporary reprieve since state inspectors say they are unlikely to have time to inspect existing restaurants while they are covering for her.

The city issued the statement after a blog hosted on the Bangor Daily News website suggested that Sturgeon had been ordered to stop restaurant inspections.

"I can confirm she is going on medical leave on Monday and we are working with the state to get coverage," said city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg, noting that such information is usually confidential but Sturgeon allowed it to be released. Clegg was responding to repeated media inquiries that were precipitated by a blog entry written by Carol McCracken.

The item appeared on the Bangor newspaper's website under the headline "City Health Inspector, Sturgeon, No Longer Inspecting Restaurants; 'She Was Too Good at What She Did,' Anonymous." The newspaper also promoted the entry on its home page with the headline "Portland Health Inspector Taken Off Restaurant Beat."

The blog item itself said that Sturgeon has stopped doing inspections and included anonymous commentary and speculation on why that might be. It also said City Manager Mark Rees declined to comment when asked about Sturgeon's situation.

Judy Long, the newspaper's universal desk editor, said she became aware of the inaccuracy around 2:30 p.m. and removed the story from the home page, though it remained on the website's Munjoy Hill blog.

"That's one of our blog services. It's not one of our staff members," Long said. "I can't speak to all the standards we hold them to. Certainly the bloggers are a whole other deal than the regular news staff, but because it's on our website we certainly want to be sure the public gets the correct information."

Long said the newspaper would look into the error and published a correction.

Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics at the Poynter Institute, said there is a growing role for citizen and amateur journalism, but newspapers must be clear about what readers are getting.

"When you put something under your banner, people assume you have brought your standard of veracity to it," McBride said. "It does hurt your brand when stuff like this happens."

McBride noted that some news websites flash an intermediary screen when linking to submitted reports that explains the organization does not vouch for its accuracy.

"You want your audience to know what it's getting," she said. Absent information to the contrary, the audience will assume the same standards are being used as the publisher of the home page where they found the link.

Sturgeon, who has been the city's health inspector for the past year, has ruffled feathers by shutting down some of the city's popular and well-known restaurants. But Clegg stressed that Sturgeon's assignment and employment status have not changed. She said the blog was erroneous.

The city has shut down nine restaurants since hiring Sturgeon as its first health inspector last year and increasing its enforcement of food-safety rules.

One of those, the Wok Inn on Forest Avenue, reopened Tuesday after being shut down for failing four health inspections since April. It passed a health inspection Tuesday by a state inspector who was filling in for Sturgeon. Sturgeon was unavailable, though Clegg did not say why at the time.

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