Penguins in jumpers blow records out of the water

(photo Phillip Island Nature Parks)

(photo Phillip Island Nature Parks)

The most shared Australian news story known to Share Wars is a local ABC radio piece about little penguins needing little jumpers to save them from oil spills.

It was published in March, but we only recently detected it as a massive blip on the Likeable radar.

The story is a classic that fits at least two of the Share Wars highly shared boxes: “animals acting like humans” (wearing adorable clothes) and “interest group” (knitters). As an extra kicker, there is an appeal for help (“knit more jumpers”).

Altruism meets anthropomorphism meets hobby, with a dash of saving the planet. It’s a heady brew – the ABC article has been shared more than 600,000 times, mostly on Facebook.

As an indication of the magnitude of this achievement, a share count of 5000 counts as a moderate success. This thing is in the hall of fame.

There’s more to the article than its monster sharecount.

It’s also a good demonstration of how the demands of story shape reality, rather than vice versa. If the world doesn’t quite fit the narrative, then you hammer the world, damn it.

The penguin appeal wasn’t born whole at the ABC. It can be traced to a piece that appeared in the Knox Leader, a Melbourne community newspaper.

That story focussed on a Melbourne great-grandmother who had personally knitted 1000 penguin jumpers. The Knox Leader is part of News Corp, and the article was picked up by the Herald Sun.

No doubt ABC radio producers noticed it there. They contacted Phillip Island Nature Parks and invited someone to speak to Red Symonds on radio.

At this point the story of the Melbourne grandmother morphed into an appeal for more jumpers.

Danene Jones, communications executive at Phillip Island, says the Penguin Foundation didn’t need more jumpers. Not for actual penguins, anyway.

“We never put out a call for jumpers,” she says. Danene says while the Foundation always welcomes contributions, they have plenty of jumpers stockpiled for rehabilitation.

“We appreciate the response we have had, but we have enough now.”

As the story went global, knitwear started arriving at Phillip Island. As noted in the ABC piece, excess jumpers are sold at Phillip Island to fund the Penguin Foundation.

That doesn’t make for as strong a story. You don’t send your mum an appeal for money for an environmental foundation. You don’t share the mundane. You share a penguin’s cry for help in a cold and oily world.

Danene says it was amazing being part of a viral phenomenon.

“You hear about it, but when it happens it blows your mind,” she says. “It happens so quickly.”

She received emails from people in many countries. In the end, the Foundation received 5000 jumpers.

“This happened purely by accident, I don’t know if we could ever do it again,” she says. “A picture of a penguin in a jumper is powerful.”

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Hal Crawford

About Hal Crawford

Hal Crawford is ninemsn's Editor-in-Chief. He began his career at The West Australian newspaper and has taught journalism at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Twitter: @halcrawford

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