Media images under two different systems of signifiers
Micro signifiers unfold in the form of metalanguage whereas macro signifiers generate images through comparisons and contrasts
When CCTV emerged as a media symbol, people were no longer concerned with the symbol’s meaning on the first layer, that is, the layer of denotative meaning. Instead, the audience directly headed for the symbol’s meaning on the second layer, that is, the layer of connotative signification of affinity and congeniality. As those connotative significations are transferred onto media symbols, new images of the media are formed. The appearance of a single A Qiu on the CCTV screen would be insufficient to introduce major changes in CCTV’s media image, but when a sizable group of presenters with similar distinctions as A Qiu, including Bi Fujian, Li Yong and others, kept appearing on CCTV, an accidental and individual occurrence is superseded by a typical fact of wide generality, which has come to be accepted as a matter of course and is taken for granted.11 Under such circumstances, CCTV’s media image has undergone corresponding changes. In this seemingly reasonable transmutation, the micro signifiers have played the role of metalanguage and have achieved the transfer of the connotative meaning by means of the generalization mechanism. Here, metalanguage refers to another complete combination of significations that constitutes a symbol’s signified meaning. In the symbol which is represented by CCTV, the signified meaning of CCTV (the media image of affinity and congeniality) is exemplified by icons represented by A Qiu and his colleagues who exhibit similar personality traits. The icons themselves, as embodied by those presenters, are composed of a complete mixture of signifiers, the signified, denotative meaning and connotative meaning. By means of metonymy, the connotative meaning becomes disseminated and it makes due contribution to the media image through the generalization mechanism. In this way, the connotative signification of the media symbol is formed and the media image is shaped. In other words, the symbols of the micro signifiers exist in the media symbols in the form of metalanguage. Whenever a change takes place in the signified of the metalanguage, this change would be generalized and become deeply entrenched in the newly expanded system of media symbols.
The more abstract symbols of macro signifiers do not contribute to the development of media image on the denotative level. Within a single social and cultural environment, the journalistic concepts, political roles, and pattern of management of any media organization are all congruous with its background. Only in the long process of historical development and in changed social environment would the meaning and the value of the symbols of those macro signifiers be highlighted. This extended meaning developed on the basis of comparison and contrast, or the so-called connotative signification, constitute the media image that will be kept alive in the mind of the audience.
The international environment of communication precisely provides such an environment of contrasts and conflicts, which will serve to emphasize and reinforce such social and cultural differences. Based on comparisons and contrasts, the audience will be able to derive completely novel perceptions and experiences which help shape sharply differentiated media image. To put it in another way, the symbols of macro signifiers shape media image in the international communication primarily through comparisons and contrasts between symbols. As there are important differences between China and developed countries in terms of the historical development of journalism and social system, the Chinese audiences are likely to form stereotypes regarding the media of journalism in other countries. Those stereotypes were formed long before the audiences were exposed to those media themselves, so their understanding and perception of those media tend to be biased and deep-rooted. With the trend of economic globalization, people tend to converge in their pursuit of media images. As a result, the gap between the emerging media and the internationally dominant media would exert tremendous impact and pressure on those emerging media. Under such circumstances, the signified meaning produced by macro signifiers would become dissociated from denotative signification and would directly head for the connotative signification. On the other hand, macro signifiers tend to possess long-term stability; therefore, compared with the symbols of the micro signifiers, it would be relatively difficult to break up or to alter the connotative signification of the macro signifiers. On the other hand, it has increasingly become a major strategy for some media to attack their rivals by constructing new connotative meanings for the media image by utilizing macro signifiers and deliberately projecting the negative image of the competing media.