When the going gets tough, reporters too often check out. Covering a speech by John Kerry today on higher education, Nedra Pickler of the Associated Press doesn’t lift a finger to sort out the pertinent issues for her readers. She writes:

[Bush campaign spokesman Steve] Schmidt also pointed to a USA Today article published Monday that showed that what students pay for tuition has fallen in recent years because of increases in financial aid. Kerry often tells voters that tuition rates have gone up during Bush’s presidency, making it harder for average American families to get by.

Pickler’s phrasing strongly suggests the USA Today piece undermines Kerry’s claim that tuition rates have gone up under Bush. But she doesn’t bother to sort through the issue and tell us definitively who’s right. Here’s what she might have told readers:

Tuition rates at public universities have indeed gone up under Bush, as Kerry claims. But the USA Today story Schmidt refers to tells us that, because of increases in federal and state grants, “[t]he actual amount paid in tuition and fees at four-year public universities fell 32 percent from 1998 through 2003.” In other words, over the past several years, tuition hikes have been more than cancelled out by a corresponding rise in grants and other financial aid to students. That stat, however, does not tell us if or how much of the decrease occurred under Bush.

Pickler implies that the Bush campaign has provided evidence to directly rebut Kerry, when in fact the two sides are referring to slightly different measures. Nor does the USA Today story that Pickler allows Schmidt to cite as evidence resolve the matter.

That’s not to say the USA Today article that Schmidt refers to is irrelevant. It’s certainly valid to point out that, when grants are taken into account, the amount that students pay has gone down in the last few years. But Pickler gives readers no sense of what that tells us about Kerry’s claim, nor does she note that the stat mentioned in the story doesn’t correspond directly with Bush’s time in office.

We’ve seen this happen countless times before — especially from the AP: When the campaigns start disagreeing over issues, and the debate becomes even slightly complex, reporters bail out, leaving us little idea about what’s true and what’s not.

Students may be paying less for college, but AP readers looking for an education on this issue will be disappointed.

Zachary Roth

Update, 6/30, 2:50 p.m.: David Halbfinger, writing in today’s New York Times, displays the same aversion to details as Pickler, though he does avoid suggesting that the USA Today story directly contradicts Kerry.

Still, Halbfinger neglects to offer readers any independent judgment on who’s right here. He might, for instance, have considered the following crucial point, (which was made by an education reporter in an email to Campaign Desk): The College Board’s 2003 report on college pricing shows that average costs at public and private four-year college have continued to go up even after grants are factored in. The USA Today story reaches the opposite conclusion because it factors in tax credits. The College Board report doesn’t, because students don’t get the benefit of the tax credit until they file their return — long after the tuition bill is due.

Whichever side you think has the better of this debate, it’s clear there are a few layers of complexity here. And it’s also clear that most of the press can’t be bothered to sort through them.

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.