BETHESDA, Md. (AP) _ Washington free-lance writer and former award-winning reporter Donna McKeown Hilts has died at the National Institutes of Health. Mrs. Hilts, who was 41, died of cancer.

The Covington, Ky., native who died Friday, won first place honors from the Virginia Press Association for a series of investigative articles she did when she worked from 1973-74 for the Journal newspapers in Northern Virginia.

In 1983, she was associate producer of a public television documentary, ''Books Under Fire,'' which was nominated for an Emmy award. The documentary was about pressure groups trying to restrain the dissemination of books they opposed.

Mrs. Hilts, who was graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1967, was a reporter for The Kentucky Post in Covington from 1967 to 1970, leaving that year to spend two years as a staff reporter with the old Washington Daily News.

After her two years with the Journal newspapers, Mrs. Hilts moved to The Washington Post where, from 1974 to 1980, she was a copy editor in the Style section and contributed articles to several sections of the newspaper.

In recent years, she did free-lance writing and broadcasting work.

Mrs. Hilts is survived by her husband, Philip J. Hilts, a Washington Post staff writer, two sons, Benjamin and Sean, and a daughter, Alexis, all of Bethesda. She also is survived by her mother, Laverne McKeown, and grandmother, Marian Schlachta, both of Fort Wright, Ky., as well as a brother and two sisters.