Having spent nearly 40 years reporting and editing news, I think I know something about how it works. In the conventional sense “news” is a series of stories which, when put into context by skilled writers and editors, helps all of us understand what’s really going out there in the world. News reporting is a process built on trust, specifically the credibility that readers, listeners or viewers associate with a particular news source. Always consider the source: is it biased and if so, how? Are you getting actual facts? Opinions are fine, but do you know when you’re hearing them, as opposed to a straightforward report that lets you make up your own mind?

By necessity news is highly selective. A newspaper colleague of mine many years ago was pretty cynical about it: “News is anything that happens to or near an editor,” he’d say, suggesting that the accident that occurred out front of the managing editor’s house was the one most likely to get our attention. True perhaps, but I hope we did better than that. Still, it’s impossible to cover everything, so editors make choices. Sometimes they’re good ones; sometimes they’re OK but for the wrong reasons; sometimes the choices are terrible.

News is subject to manipulation. Politicians try to manage the news all the time. They hire press secretaries to make reporters’ work as easy as possible. Companies, interest groups, nonprofit organizations, revolutionary movements, religious groups and just about everyone else do their best to catch the attention of news organizations, while making as certain as they can that their stories are told in a flattering way.

BP’s oil spill is much in the news these days. It’s wreaking havoc on the Gulf of Mexico, its coastline and the people who live there. It’s a public-relations disaster for BP, of course, but it’s also a big problem for President Obama, the governors of several states, various senators, congressmen and other politicians, for anyone who wants to sell gulf shrimp or other seafood from that region, for old-fashioned dig-it-up-and-burn-it energy policies and their advocates-and for people who continue to believe that technology can fix anything.

The BP spill is a big news story. Interpreted one way, the story’s about enraged residents and oily birds, ruined fishing and tourist industries, an arrogant oil company, big guys vs. little guys, us vs. them. Lots of conflict, anger, great pictures. Katie Couric in shorts.

But there’s another way to view this drama, of course. The spill’s a gigantic metaphor for what’s wrong with the world. What’s all this oil drilling for, anyway? When we have to go out and drill where the bottom’s a mile down, doesn’t that say we’ve depleted all the easier places to get our oil? And why do we need this oil anyway? For cars, cars, cars; so we can drive from suburbs reachable only by cars to stores too far to walk to. So we don’t have to use the pathetic public transportation systems we have; so we don’t have to develop better ones. So we can continue to spend money on highways, widening and re-paving them so we can drive even faster.

I know the president wants to use the BP story to get us to re-think our energy patterns. But every time he sticks his head up he’s shot at by apologists for the oil industry, politicians with their own agendas, the highway lobby and the drive-on crowd (that’s us, remember).

What to do? Use the news, for starters — keep reminding the country (and the world) that we’re down to the riskiest oilfields on the planet, that we’ve simply got to start using less of it, that oil companies and the attendant politics shouldn’t be ruling our lives, that there’s a better way to live.

History belongs to the winners, the saying goes, meaning that the victors usually get to tell the story. We learn about the Crucifixion from the Christian point of view-the Romans aren’t around to tell us why they did it. We learn about the Declaration of Independence from those who wrote and fought for it. Except for Confederate die-hards, we tell the story of the Civil War from the northern point of view. If we allow ourselves to learn about the BP oil spill from BP (not likely but possible in our climate of news manipulation) or a nation afraid to offend the oil industry, we’ll be the losers. Still worse, if we simply drive on without taking any lessons from this terrible tragedy, we won’t have taken advantage of the power of news stories to change the way we think.

Watch, listen and read the news from the Gulf. Consider its source. Remember that the most powerful outcome won’t be on the Gulf beaches, but in our minds.

David D. Platt is former editor of The Working Waterfront.