Meet 2020 Forward under 40 Award Recipient Erin Banco ’11

UW Majors: Journalism; African Languages and Literature
Age: 30 | Washington, DC
National Security Reporter, Daily Beast

Since Erin Banco took over the national-security beat at the Daily Beast, global unrest and political chaos have meant no shortage of news.

“This is an incredible moment in time for journalists everywhere, especially in D.C.,” Banco says. “There are really long days, and there are long weeks, and I would say it’s been a particularly long year. But I wouldn’t pass it up for anything at this point.”

Banco joined the politics-and-pop-culture website in summer 2018, at the peak of the U.S. Congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

She’s since reported on a myriad of ongoing investigations, federal law enforcement, lobbying, and White House policy related to the Middle East.

In just the last year, she’s reported both breaking news and in-depth series on presidential impeachment; foreign influence, such as American dealings with Ukraine and Russia; and military conflicts, including escalating conflicts between the United States and Iran.

Banco says reporting on American national security at this time in history requires knowing how to sift and winnow. She dedicates much of her time to investigations and developing relationships with trustworthy sources.

“There’s a lot of disinformation,” Banco says. “You’ve got to make sure that you’re talking to the right people.”

Day to day, Banco says the pace of reporting from the nation’s capital is a pivot from her early career as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. She was on the ground in Egypt, furthering her study of Arabic at the American University in Cairo, when the Arab Spring protests erupted. Banco chose to stay.

As a freelance reporter, and a correspondent for the International Business Times, Banco covered elections in Egypt and armed conflicts in Gaza, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. Her research and reporting on human-rights abuses, humanitarian crises, and the rise of ISIS earned her bylines with the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN, and more.

At times, she reported from the front lines of conflict zones, securing firsthand observations to get the story right.

“You can be in the middle of Syria, alongside rebel fighters, and be getting spoon-fed information about what’s happening on the front line,” she says. “But until you actually get to the front line to see what’s happening and see how the other side is fighting, you don’t actually get a clear picture of who’s winning or who’s losing or how people are faring.”

After nearly eight years, she returned stateside. She earned a master’s degree in international  media and human rights from Columbia University, and she released a book, Pipe Dreams: The Plundering of Iraq’s Oil Wealth, based on her investigations into illicit oil sales and economic corruption.

Banco credits her career path to her double focus at UW–Madison: studying Arabic plus four years at the Daily Cardinal, where she served as campus editor, multimedia editor, and executive TV producer.

“I feel like we were doing real, hard-hitting journalism at age 20,” she says.

From Vilas Hall to the halls of Congress, Banco says a constant across her journalism is taking time to really understand what and who is behind every story. There’s an adrenaline rush that comes with any kind of reporting, she says, but she’s careful to ensure that every piece she publishes is accurate and solid — while keeping up with the ever-quickening news cycle.

“It’s how you use that adrenaline that determines how good of a reporter you are,” Banco says. “You have to be willing to stick it out, to report around some of the nuances of the conflict or the investigation. It takes a long time to get to the truth.”

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