Scenes from the shutdown bear marks of stagecraft as players try to gain edge on opponents

Rita Kirk, director of the SMU's Maguire Ethics Center and communications professor, talks how visual imagery is helping to shape the narrative role of the U.S. government shutdown.

On the National Mall, barricades bar tourists from entering the Lincoln Memorial. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers sit down at a negotiating table across from chairs left empty to symbolize the no-show opposition.

With scenes of the partial government shutdown filling television news broadcasts and front pages, practitioners of political stagecraft — Republicans, Democrats and bureaucrats — are striving to frame the debate and what’s at stake in ways the public can see and feel. But while efforts to control the optics of the debate can be very effective, they’re largely reinforcing, not changing, the mindset of voters increasingly cynical about Washington, experts say.

“We’re in an age, really, of visual storytelling...and you know the story even if you don’t read all the words,” said Rita Kirk, a professor of communications at Southern Methodist University who studies political messaging.

In just the first few days of the shutdown, officials and lawmakers seized on such visuals — whether by letting the Panda Cam go black when they closed the National Zoo or jousting in front of TV cameras over the rights of Mississippi veterans to enter the shuttered World War II Memorial — either to cast government as a vital provider or an uncaring behemoth....